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Wymondham Abbey

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Why two towers?

Its a case of town versus gown, in this case between the people of Wymondham and the monks of the abbey. For 300 years they squared up against each other, competing for space, attention and prestige, before their disputes were settled. Even then there was more conflict to come after the abbey was closed and demolished. But were getting ahead of ourselves. After the conquest of 1066, a Norman knight called William dAlbini was given the extensive Norfolk lands of the Saxon archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand. This included the manor of Wymondham. Like most knights, dAlbini, known as Strong Hand, was keen to show off his religious devotion and demonstrate his wealth. At Rising, he built a mighty castle, but at Wymondham he decided to build a church on the site of a Saxon construction. Work got under way in 1107, and dAlbini declared it would serve as both an abbey and a church for the townspeople.

So far, so good.

The problem was the founders instructions were vague. It was not clear who was in charge of appointing the clergy or who should use which part of the building. In the early days it did not matter; by 1130 the church, dedicated to St Mary and St Alban, was complete. DAlbinis son added to its attractions by creating a shrine to the murdered archbishop and martyr Thomas Beckett. Soon the abbey was on the pilgrim trail, and both town and church prospered as they catered for many visitors. But all was not well between the town and the Benedictine monks, who were led by a prior who insisted on picking the vicar to administer the church. To make things worse, the Abbot of St Albans claimed jurisdiction over the prior, while the Bishop of Norwich also put his oar in. In 1249 Pope Innocent IV intervened. He ruled the church did have separate status under its own vicar and the parishioners should have use, and control, of the nave, north aisle, and north-west tower (the parts of the church lying away from the monastic buildings) and that the priory should have the quire and eastern chapels, the transepts, the south aisle and the south-west tower.

Right, that settled that then.

Not quite. Two centuries later they were still arguing. In 1448 the abbey became independent of St Albans. Stephen London became the first of 10 abbots, but arguments with the town had worsened. The monks had rebuilt their weak east tower in octagon form, in the process making a rigid division between their part of the church and the parishioners. Years later, helped by landowner Sir John Clifton, the citizens retaliated by building their own bigger and better tower. As the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote, the twin towers were defiant gestures between priory and parish. Incidents ranged from the petty townspeople ringing their bells while the monks were at prayer to the violent breaking in to the abbots lodge and threatening him or locking him in his bell tower.

Surely it wasnt all conflict.

Eventually both sides saw they had much to gain from compromise. After all, the abbey provided a school for the young, care for the sick and poor, meadows for grazing cattle as well as employment for local tradespeople and abbey servants. By the end of the 15th century, reports of discord lessened and the monks integrated into the life of the community. Perhaps they integrated a bit too well. As the 16th century dawned a spirit of reform was in the air. When bishop of Norwich Richard Nix visited Wymondham in 1514 he was shocked by the laxity and materialism of the Benedictines. One of the brethren, Brother Thomas Lynn, was his whistleblower. Apparently the brothers are unwilling to come to matins and hardly to compline... brother Richard Cambridge suspiciously consorts with the wife of Master Poynter... the prior is violent and bad-tempered... Worse, the supposedly celibate monks were said to be carrying on with prostitutes. By the time Henry VIII and chief minister Thomas Cromwell began attacking the monasteries, Wymondham surrendered tamely.

Did nobody resist?

Abbot Eligius Ferrers and his monks were paid a pension (Ferrers got 60 and an archdeaconship of Norwich Cathedral) when Cromwells men came calling in 1538. The real losers were the townspeople who had provided goods and services to the abbey or worked there they lost their jobs. To add insult to injury, their church was being dismantled along with the abbey. Sergeant-at-law John Flowerdew was Cromwells enforcer. He began stripping the lead from the roof and melting down the bells for Henrys cannon. Opposition came from an old friend of the abbey, a respected Wymondham businessman and landowner called Robert Kett. Along with his neighbours, Kett petitioned to save as much as possible of the abbey for the towns use. Much damage was done though. A decade later, in 1549, Flowerdew and Kett had scores to settle when, in a dispute over land enclosures, Kett led commoners against Flowerdew, the kings man. The dispute escalated and Kett led thousands of rebels to Norwich and a violent death. His brother, William, was hanged from the west tower, his remains left to rot for years as a warning to others.

Very effective. What happened after that?

The King Edward VI Grammar School was endowed in 1550 at the Beckett church, taking over education from the abbey. Today the monks tower is a shell while the rest of the abbey buildings are long gone, but the church itself still thrives, distinguished by its 15th century angel roofs and altar screen and the twin towers dominate the town.


The Wymondham Story, Adrian Hoare, (Wymondham Heritage Society) 2004


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