How is St Benet's Abbey celebrating its 1,000th birthday?

PUBLISHED: 19:28 23 May 2019 | UPDATED: 19:28 23 May 2019

St Benet's Abbey   PICTURE: Jane Bowden

St Benet's Abbey PICTURE: Jane Bowden

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Lapped by water, history and legend; hallowed by prayer and pilgrimage; in ruins for almost as long as it soared in majesty above the marshes; lonely, lovely St Benet's Abbey is 1,000 years old.

St Benet's Abbey celebrates its 1,000th anniversarySt Benet's Abbey celebrates its 1,000th anniversary

Exactly 1,000 years after King Canute gave a group of monks the land for an abbey, a summer of celebrations is beginning.

On Sunday, June 9, a community play A Time to Gather Stones will be performed. The drama will begin on the staithe at St Benet's Green Horning, and conclude against a backdrop of the ruins of the abbey itself, with the audience travelling by boat between the two acts. Tickets, for performances beginning at 11am and 1.15pm, including the return trip on the Mississippi Riverboat are £10 from Eventbrite. The Abbey car park will be closed but there is no charge for people arriving by bicycle or on foot to see the play. It will also be performed, for free, in Ludham, Horning and Neatishead at 7pm on June 13, 14 and 15.

Wherry Albion passing St Benets Abbey. Picture: Mike PageWherry Albion passing St Benets Abbey. Picture: Mike Page

Magnificent monks, woven from willow, will watch over St Benet's Abbey from mid July until mid August. The larger-than-life-size monks, and their dog, are being created by Withy Arts, with the help of local people. Two of the monks have already made their way to nearby St Catherine's church, Ludham, where local primary school pupils will help make more on June 26. And there is a chance for all-comers to have a go at willow weaving with Withy Arts at the abbey on July 31 from 10am to 3pm.

The St Benedict Trail runs through Horning from July 6-14 and includes competitions for adults and children. Find forms at the church, Post Office, newsagent, pub and church. 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 Bishop of Norwich, Rt Rev Graham James sailing on the Wherry Albion to take the annual service at St Benet's Abbey. 
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLYThe Bishop of Norwich, Rt Rev Graham James sailing on the Wherry Albion to take the annual service at St Benet's Abbey. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

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.

Every year an open-air service takes place in the ruins of the Abbey on the first Sunday of August. With the new Abbot (and Bishop of Norwich) not arriving in Norfolk until the autumn, the Bishop of Thetford will preside at 3.30pm on August 4.

St Benets Abbey   

Picture: James BassSt Benets Abbey Picture: James Bass

Join a free guided tour of the abbey every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm until September 29 (excluding June 9 and August 4.)

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.

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The abbey site is open daily, for free. Visitors can arrive by boat (free 24 hour moorings,) by bicycle or footpath from Ludham and Ludham Bridge, and there is a small car park, with two spaces reserved for disabled visitors.


The name Benet is a shortening of Benedict. The monks of St Benet's Abbey were Benedictine, following rule set out by St Benedict.

Contrary to legend, King Canute, the founder of St Benet's, was not foolishly insisting he could control the tides, but demonstrating how even he, king of most of Scandinavia and England, was subject to the laws of nature.


Exactly 1,000 years ago 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 probably 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. The abbey became rich, accruing gifts of land and property. Edith Swan-neck, wife of the last Saxon King of England was a donor.

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 funded a grand new aisle and is buried there, alongside his wife.

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 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 marks the site of the medieval high altar and a ruined 18th century wind pump fills the even more ruined gatehouse to what was once one of the richest churches in the kingdom.

But St Benet's, surrounded by reeds and water and hallowed by more than a thousand years of prayer, is still attracting pilgrims.

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