St Benet's Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
St Benet's Abbey and causeway, Cow Holm, Horning, Norfolk.


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
St Benet's Abbey and causeway, Cow Holm, Horning, Norfolk.
North Norfolk (District Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:


A Benedictine abbey founded in 1019 surviving as earthworks, upstanding and buried remains.

Reasons for Designation

St Benet’s Abbey is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Survival: for the standing, buried and earthwork remains which depict the form, plan and architectural detail of the abbey;

* Potential: for the stratified archaeological deposits which retain considerable potential to increase our understanding of the physical characteristics of the buildings. Buried artefacts and sediments will also have the potential to increase our knowledge of the social and economic functioning of the Benedictine community within the wider medieval landscape;

* Documentation: for the historical and archaeological documentation pertaining to the abbey’s history and evolution, notably a series of sketches and drawings depicting some of the buildings prior to their ruination;

* Diversity: for the range and complexity of features such as the church, gatehouse, fishponds, precinct wall and causeway which, taken as a whole, provide a plan of the abbey. The buried features will retain significant stratified deposits which provide details of the evolution of the monastic site. The fishponds rank among the most complex of any monastic house in England;

* Group value: for the strong group value with the scheduled and Grade II listed former chapel of the Hospital of St James which is linked to the abbey via the causeway.


From the time of Augustine’s mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages.

Tradition records that c.800 a small company of Saxon monks or recluses led by Suneman erected a church or chapel dedicated to St Benedict at the junction of the Rivers Bure and Thurne. The building was destroyed by the Danes in 870 but a holy man named Wulfric established another community and rebuilt the chapel c.960. An alleged miraculous intervention drew to the community the attention of King Cnut who founded the Benedictine Abbey in 1019 and endowed it with the manors of Horning, Ludham and Neatishead. Further endowments followed and the extensive property of the abbey is recorded in the Domesday Book. The sole dependencies of the abbey were the Priory of St Michael at Rumburgh, Suffolk (founded 1064) and the Hospital of St James at Horning (founded 1153) which is linked to the abbey via a causeway. The only surviving building of the hospital is the chapel which was subsequently converted into a barn. The number of monks at St Benet’s remained fairly constant at around twenty-two to twenty-six. Virtually all late C11 foundations followed the Rule of St Benedict which made every house autonomous in its government. In total, a minimum of 163 Benedictine houses were eventually founded in England; and the Black Monks, as they were known, were particularly powerful in Norfolk.

The sequence of the abbey buildings is not well known. The first abbot of St Benet’s, Elsinus, is said to have rebuilt an existing mud church in stone, work which continued under Thurstan (d.1064) and Ethelwold (d.1089). Abbot Richard (d.1126) completed a west tower and hung bells in it. As was usual, the erection of permanent monastic buildings followed the completion of the church. A new chapterhouse and dorter were begun by Abbot Daniel (d.1153) and completed by William II (d.1168). The frater and cloister were reconstructed by Abbot Thomas (d.1186), and then Abbot Ralph (d.1210) rebuilt the rest of the cloister, the farmery with its chapel and cloister, and covered the church and other buildings with lead. The rebuilding of the presbytery was completed c.1274. In the mid-C15, Sir John Fastolf of Caister Castle erected an aisle on the south side of the choir and a Lady Chapel on the side of the chancel where he was buried. The few surviving fragments of the church fabric and associated earthworks allow the elements of its mid-C16 plan to be reconstructed. Its principal components were a long narrow choir flanked by aisles or chapels; a north transept and possibly a south transept; and a narrow aisleless nave which formerly terminated in a square west tower. The unusually narrow form of the nave suggests a rebuilding on earlier foundations. The great hall of the guest house was built by Abbot Reynold (d.1229). In the winter of 1287-8 the region was severely flooded and the outbuildings of the abbey were damaged. In 1327 the abbey was granted a licence to construct crenellated precinct walls, but these are thought to have failed c.1381, possibly during the Peasants’ Revolt.

St Benet’s Abbey was the only religious house in England not to be dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1536 the King appointed William Reppes, Bishop of Norwich as abbot, granting to him all its properties in return for those of the bishopric. Reppes stripped the site however, and the last monk left c.1540. The abbey and its demesne lands were thereafter let out to farm, and the precinct was plundered for building materials. In the third decade of the C17 the church, walls and other buildings were described as having fallen down; and by 1702 a map drawn by R. Nicholson shows only a house, barn and stable, together with a mill in the extreme eastern corner but possibly this was actually in the western corner. The gatehouse survived in a reasonable state until a windmill was erected inside it, probably in 1780, making use of the gatehouse’s masonry footings which allowed the mill to be built higher than most examples of this date in the area. The mill was designed for drainage, although it was probably also used to grind seed and grain, and fell out of commission in the 1860s after the sails blew off. An inn named The Chequers, occupying a site on the bank of the river, was still in use in the late C19 but had been demolished by 1907. Its origins are unknown but it was described as having a Gothic arched doorway of C14 work.

The site has been the subject of an analytical earthwork survey carried out in 1994 by the RCHME. This was in response to a proposal to rebuild the flood defences as the western side of the abbey precinct was being continually eroded by the River Bure. A geophysical survey of this area was also carried out in 1996 to provide information about the buried remains that may be affected by the work. Owing to the extremely dry conditions, the results revealed little unequivocal evidence for the remains of buildings. In 2012 repair work was carried out on the gatehouse and windmill which had been damaged by flooding. This year a length of the precinct wall along the north side has been exposed and recorded as part of this conservation programme.


St Benet’s Abbey is situated about 12km north-east of Norwich on a sand and gravel eminence of almost forty acres, known as Cow Holm. The church stands on the highest point, 4.15m above O.D., from which the ground slopes away on all sides. The precinct is D-shaped and is bounded by a water-filled ditch on its north and east sides, and by the River Bure on its west side.


The scheduled area includes the upstanding remains and buried archaeological deposits associated with the abbey. These include the Grade I listed ruin of the C14 gatehouse incorporating the remains of an C18 windmill and an attached portion of precinct wall; the ruin of the church and buried remains of claustral buildings dating from the C12 to C14; the foundations of the precinct wall; and the extensive remains of earthworks, fishponds, and buried remains of various ancillary buildings. Along the south side of the precinct are the buried remains of the Abbot’s Hall, bakery, barn, brewery and stables.


The abbey precinct is defined by a formerly continuous, water-filled ditch, averaging 10.0m in width. The original access to the gatehouse is now obscured by modern infilling, and the only other crossing, on the eastern side, is of uncertain date. The spoil from excavation of the precinct ditch formed a continuous bank inside it, now varying between 3.5m and 9.0m and up to 1.5m high. The bank contains the remains of a wall of mortared flint, the top of which has recently (2013) been revealed along the north-east corner of the precinct. The remains show that both the inside and outside faces of the wall were faced with knapped, squared and galletted flint work of the highest quality. Only the lower courses of the original wall have survived as it appears that the wall failed c.1380 and was reconstructed with poorer quality flint work using a much whiter mortar. The rebuilt wall is 0.6m wide. It is buttressed internally in several places, and there is some occasional patching in C15 red brick. East of the gatehouse is the only substantially extant surviving section of the precinct wall, measuring 18m long and 3.04m high. It is different from the other wall in construction and date, and was probably erected in the late medieval period. The eastern side is faced with whole flints laid in herringbone fashion, alternating with bands of brick, and the western side is faced in whole flints and bricks laid in a less regular pattern. The wall is battlemented and pierced by two splayed apertures. The best preserved part of the abbey is the gatehouse situated on the north-west edge of the precinct (TG3803015782). The south-east and north-west facades are faced with knapped flint and ashlar flushwork, and are decorated with stone relief carvings. Other walls are faced with red brick. The gatehouse has two chambers, the outer (north-east) being subsumed by the windmill, the insertion of which also meant the loss of the upper floor. The outer chamber is entered through a two-pointed arch with four orders of mouldings, the inner order carved with animals. There are carved figures in the spandrels: an armed man bearing a staff to the left, and a lion rampant to the right. Flanking the arch are two polygonal turrets which extend just beyond the outer wall of the windmill. Beyond this is a vaulted narthex, of which three moulded transverse ribs survive with a ridge-piece and bosses. This opens into the second chamber which was originally vaulted in two bays: the colonettes with capitals leading to vault springers still survive. The outer arch is flanked by buttresses with ogee gabled niches, and the spandrels bear the devices of England and France. There are diagonal buttresses either side, and on the right an arched stairway rises to the now demolished first floor. The red brick mill is circular in plan and has the form of a truncated cone. It has a number of doorways and windows on three levels, most of which have been blocked, indicating a change in function. The repair work carried out in 2012 involved c.40% brick replacement.

The gatehouse leads into the precinct in which extensive earthworks indicate two areas that probably equate to the inner and outer court of the abbey. The inner court occupies the higher ground and is defined by earthwork boundaries enclosing an area of about six hectares. The church and claustral buildings were built at the broader eastern end. The northern wall of the church is the best preserved fragment, surviving to a height of 2.0m and approximately 1.04m thick. Its core is mainly of flint, with smaller quantities of stone and brick. Five buttresses support the northern side, and both wall and buttresses are faced with knapped flint panels and ashlared stone, arranged in a chequerwork pattern. An L-shaped lump of masonry at the western end of the nave possibly represents the north-western corner of the west tower but only its flint rubble core survives (TG3829915648). Most of the south wall of the nave, now only 1.1m high at maximum, has collapsed inwards. The walls of the north transept survive to varying heights from 1.4m to being only just visible. The remainder of the church is marked by turf banks and mounds. In recent years a two-tiered square concrete plinth supporting a large timber cross has been erected in the location of the presbytery. No masonry of the claustral buildings survives above ground although there are fairly strong earthworks south of the church. Prominent amongst these are two sunken rectangular areas which may represent the cloister and infirmary court. On the slope east of the church are a number of small mounds which may have been the monastic cemetery.

The outer court occupies the flat or gently sloping ground forming a broad strip around the inner court. The earthworks were difficult to discern during the recent site visit due to the long grass but, according to the RCHME report, the outer court is subdivided by low banks and wall foundations into a series of mostly rectangular enclosures, nearly all of which contain fishponds and watercourses, and a few of which formerly contained buildings. The most striking feature is a geometric arrangement of fishponds occupying a broadly rectangular area of c.4.2 acres immediately east of the gatehouse. The principal element is a trapezoidal moat, 82m north to south by 60m, with arms varying in width surrounding an island which itself contains a symmetrical arrangement of five fishponds. Adjacent and linked to the western side of the moat is a group of three narrow rectangular fishponds, and a further L-shaped fishpond connects to the eastern side of the moat. From this complex further fishponds were fed by open leats running eastward through though the enclosures of the outer court. Most of the fishponds are rectangular but there are some irregular shapes and several are arranged in groups. They range considerably in size. According to the RCHME, the majority, though heavily silted, still hold water up to a maximum depth of 0.75m. Some of the enclosures may be gardens, and others the site of dovecotes or farm buildings.

The outer court also includes a number of features along the waterfront, accessed via a former track leading from the gatehouse. This passes a depression at TG3808915704 which has been interpreted as a lined pond or undercroft. The surface evidence suggests separate areas of activity along the waterfront. The functions of the buildings are unknown but are likely to be connected with the storage of goods coming in and going out of the abbey by boat. A small lump of masonry at TG3815015659 is all that visibly remains of what was a buttressed structure of large proportions; and to the east is a series of prominent earthworks indicating the site of The Chequers. Outside the extreme north-western corner of the precinct, but within the area of protection, is a large inlet of water thought to be a harbour. It is sub-rectangular, measuring at maximum 80m long and 30m wide, defined on the northern side by a bank which is continuous with the river flood bank and which ends at the causeway to the gatehouse. The inlet is silted and supports a reed bed. A causeway to the north-west of the precinct between the gatehouse of the abbey and its associated hospital of St James survives as an earthwork. It extends for 1km and is divided by the River Ant, a tributary of the River Bure. No evidence for any bridge or ferry has been identified at the crossing point. Only the south-east end, adjacent to the abbey gatehouse, has been surveyed by the RCHME. The bank of the causeway is here up to 5m wide and 1m high with ditches on either side. It is of similar dimensions along its length but has been slightly remodelled by water management features on the west bank of the Ant.


The area of protection includes the causeway and the complete D-shaped precinct which is bounded by the River Bure on its west side, and by a water-filled ditch on its north and east sides including a 2m buffer zone. At the north-western end of the causeway, the area of protection ends at the line of the brick culvert c.15m from the gate. The gatehouse is listed at Grade I and is also included in the scheduling. The modern concrete plinth supporting a large timber cross in the location of the presbytery is excluded from the scheduling, as are all modern paths, track surfaces and fences, although the ground beneath all of these is included. There is considerable potential for undesignated (but potentially nationally important) remains to survive outside the scheduled area, particularly in the River Bure which may contain remains of the riverside wall and/or buildings.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
NF 6
Legacy System:


Books and journals
The Religious Houses of Norfolk: A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, , (1906)
Coppack, G, Abbeys and Priories, (2009)
Pestell, T , St Benet’s Abbey: A Guide and History , (2008)
'East Anglian Archaeology 104, pp. 148-151' in Earthworks of Norfolk, (2003)
P. K. Linford, Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report 71/96, The Abbey of St Benet at Holm, Horning, Norfolk: Report on Geophysical Survey, 1996,
RCHME Survey , The Abbey of St Benet at Holm, Horning, Norfolk, December 1994,
Stephen Heywood, The Precinct Wall of St Benet’s Abbey, Horning, Norfolk, 2013,


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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