Shouldham Priory with associated water management features, a section of a Roman road and a Bronze Age urnfield


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1010572

Date first listed: 23-Oct-1970

Date of most recent amendment: 02-Mar-1995


Ordnance survey map of Shouldham Priory with associated water management features, a section of a Roman road and a Bronze Age urnfield
© Crown Copyright and database right 2018. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
© British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Limited 2018. All rights reserved. Licence number 102006.006.
Use of this data is subject to Terms and Conditions.

The above map is for quick reference purposes only and may not be to scale. For a copy of the full scale map, please see the attached PDF - 1010572 .pdf

The PDF will be generated from our live systems and may take a few minutes to download depending on how busy our servers are. We apologise for this delay.

This copy shows the entry on 14-Dec-2018 at 05:00:17.


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

County: Norfolk

District: King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)

Parish: Shouldham

National Grid Reference: TF 68054 09540


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

A post-Conquest double house is a settlement built after the Norman Conquest to house a community of religious men and women. Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship, accommodation and subsistence. The main elements included one or two churches and domestic buildings, normally arranged around two self-contained cloisters. One or two outer courts and gatehouses would accompany the central cloister compound, the whole complex being bounded by a precinct wall, earthworks or a moat. Outside the main enclosure fishponds, barns and mills may be found. The tradition of establishing double houses originated in the early Anglo-Saxon period. However, early double houses were often re-founded as the more popular single sex communities. During the 12th century a new order was founded which revived the concept of the double house. This order was founded by Gilbert of Sempringham. Within these new foundations the nuns were supposed to lead an enclosed contemplative life. The houses were under the supervision of the male founders of the order or their deputies. The male canons in each house were required to celebrate the mass for the nuns. The Gilbertines founded 12 double houses; in addition, a small number of such houses were established by other orders, such as the Fontevraults and the Bridgettines. In total only 25 sites are known to have existed. As a rare type of monastery all examples exhibiting significant survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Shouldham Priory is one of only twelve double houses of the Gilbertine order, founded by St Gilbert of Sempringham. This is thought to have been the only monastic order to originate in England, and most of the Gilbertine houses were in eastern England, centred on Lincolnshire. Shouldham Priory is the only one in Norfolk, and was one of the last of the double houses to be established, the communities founded later being for men only. The monument retains archaeological information concerning the layout and the social and economic organisation of the priory, as well as evidence for its development through time and the eventual demolition of the buildings. Almost a quarter of the known area of the monastic precinct is occupied by remains visible as upstanding earthworks and, although nothing of the priory church and conventual buildings can be seen above ground, observations made at various times during works on the farm have demonstrated the survival of extensive remains below the surface. The crop marks which have been observed and photographed on the ploughed fields have, in addition, revealed the plan of parts of the church and claustral buildings in considerable detail. A large part of the complex water management system of the priory can be traced by the same means and, where buried features of this system have been exposed in the sides of modern excavation, they have been seen to contain waterlogged deposits in which organic materials, including not only artefacts but evidence of the environment during the monastic period, will be preserved.

The evidence which is contained within the monument for much earlier occupation of the site, during the Roman period and in the Bronze Age, is of additional interest for the study of the history of land use in the area.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The site of the Priory of the Holy Cross and the Blessed Virgin, Shouldham, lies immediately to the north of Shouldham village, on the south side of the Nar Valley above the valley bottom, which was fen in the medieval period. The monument includes the buried remains of monastic buildings, together with a series of earthwork enclosures and remains of an extensive water management system with fishponds. Within the same, single area there are also remains of part of a road considered to be of Roman date, and a Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

Shouldham Priory was founded c.1190, as a double house of canons and nuns of the Gilbertine order, by Geoffrey Fitzpiers, Earl of Essex and Chief Justiciary of England. The original endowment, which included the manor and the Churches of All Saints and St Margaret, Shouldham, was augmented in the 13th century by further gifts made by the founder and his heirs, and the priory was, for a time, comparatively wealthy. In 1291 its annual income was recorded as 207 pounds, seven shillings and ninepence and it held property in London and in 26 parishes in Norfolk. It was surrendered to the Crown in 1538 at which time, according to the evidence of contemporary records, the convent comprised a prior and nine canons and a prioress and eight nuns. It remained in the possession of the Crown until 1553, when it was sold to Thomas Mildmay, and afterwards passed to Sir John Hare.

The remains of the priory church and conventual buildings lie near the centre of the monument, in and around the area now occupied by Abbey Farmhouse and garden and the farmyard. To the south of this, and visible under pasture, is the group of earthwork enclosures, some of them containing traces of structures likely to have been domestic or agricultural service buildings. The channels, sluices and ponds of the water management system survive as buried features in lower ground to the west, north and north east of the conventual buildings. Documentary evidence, as well as the layout of the remains, indicates that the entrance and gate to the priory was on the west side, almost certainly at, or very close, to the modern entrance to the farm.

The main priory buildings stood on a slight ridge of higher ground, on a platform above an abrupt scarp c.1.5m high on the west and north west side, where the ground has been artificially terraced. On the north west side, the scarp was formerly visible as a prominent earthwork under grass and now forms the south western edge of an irrigation lake which has been dug at its foot. Although the upstanding ruins were demolished to ground level in or around 1831, the foundations of the conventual church and associated buildings survive below ground. Evidence for medieval buildings, including stone architectural fragments and an area of medieval tiled floor, has been observed on the western side of the terraced platform, in the area in and around the modern farmyard, at various times during the construction of farm buildings and in the course of limited fieldwork. These remains, which lie to the west of the conventual church and opposite the probable site of the priory gate to the west, are considered to belong to the suite of buildings occupied by the canons. Abbey Farmhouse, which is not included in the scheduling, is not known for certain to incorporate any part of the original monastic buildings, although the unusual thickness of at least one of the internal walls suggests that parts of it may be of medieval date.

The foundations of the eastern half of the conventual church and the nuns' accommodation, which adjoined the church according to the usual arrangement of Gilbertine double houses, extend into a field to the east of the modern farmstead, where they have produced well defined crop marks. The area of the buildings is also marked on the surface of the field by a dense scatter of building materials, including architectural fragments and broken medieval clay roof tile. The detailed plan of these foundations, which has been revealed by the crop marks and recorded in air photographs, shows that the church was rectangular, and was divided longitudinally by a wall into two separate aisles, for the nuns to the north and the canons to the south. On the north side of the nuns' choir, at the eastern end of the church, was a rectangular chapel. The buildings which accommodated the nuns were grouped around the west, north and east sides of a cloister c.20m square, abutting the north side of the church. The whole of the eastern range, with the east end of the northern range, which contained the refectory, can be traced in the air photographs. The eastern range included the chapter house, where the daily business of the convent was discussed, and an upper story containing the dorter (dormitory). The chapter house, aligned parallel to the church, was rectangular in plan and measured c.16m east-west by c.6m and, to the north of this, the undercroft of the dorter, c.7m wide, extended for a distance of c.37m, projecting well beyond the northern range. The air photographs show the footings of a rere-dorter (latrine block) across the northern end of the dorter, with a drain running beneath it.

The monastic cemetery lies immediately to the east of the church and cloister, and the line of its eastern boundary is visible in the air photographs. A limited excavation of this area in 1954 uncovered the remains of c.22 individuals, male and female. The lid of a stone coffin removed from here in the same year is now in the garden of Abbey Farmhouse, but since it is no longer in situ, it is not included in the scheduling. The air photographs show also the foundations of a large rectangular building south of the cemetery and immediately to the south east of the church, and another large building which was probably the infirmary, lying to the east of the cemetery and c.35m east of the eastern claustral range. Beyond this, buried wall foundations and ditches define at least two more rectangular enclosures thought to be of monastic date. A scatter of building materials, including medieval roof tile and chalk, extends with variable density over the surface of the field for a distance of c.125m south and c.95m east of the church, indicating the presence of structural remains in this area also.

The earthworks in the southern part of the monument include a network of ditches which define a group of five contiguous rectangular and sub-rectangular enclosures, some with slight internal banks. The enclosures are laid out three to the east, on a line running southwards from the area of the conventual buildings, and two to the west. The middle enclosure on the east side has the character of a moated island measuring c.114m east-west by c.67m, surrounded by ditches between 8m and 12m wide and up to 1.5m deep. The larger enclosure to the north of this was evidently similar, although the ditches on its east and north sides have been infilled and are no longer visible. The ditches around the south eastern enclosure, however, appear much shallower.

The two enclosures on the west side of the group are separated by an east-west ditch c.0.6m deep and are subdivided internally by slight ditches c.0.3m deep. The south western part of the south western enclosure underlies a modern housing development and is not included in the scheduling. The remainder of the ditch on the south side has also been infilled but will survive as a buried feature. Both enclosures are bounded on the west side by a bank up to 0.8m high with a hollow way beyond. The bank almost certainly marks the western boundary of the monastic precinct in this area, and the hollow way the original line of the road from Shouldham village to the priory.

The remains of a stone building underlie an elongated mound at the northern end of the north western enclosure, and two slight, parallel linear mounds towards the southern end mark what are probably the wall footings of a second building. Near the centre of the north western enclosure there is a mound c.0.75m high and c.50m long which is considered to be the site of a third, very large building such as a barn. All these features are aligned east-west.

Within the north western enclosure, on the east side, there is a rectangular pond, now dry, c.1m deep and measuring c.26m by 12m, with the remains of an inlet channel to the north. The remains of two more ponds are located side by side in the north east corner of the south western enclosure, the eastern pond being linked to the adjacent moat ditch by a short channel.

The priory required a constant supply of water for domestic needs including sanitation, and to fill the fish ponds, as well as for other agricultural purposes. This was provided by a spring which still emerges immediately to the north of the modern farm entrance, on the western side of the monastic precinct. Water from the spring will have filled the moat ditches and ponds of the enclosures in the southern part of the monument and was conducted northwards in artificial water courses which survive as buried features and can be traced by well defined crop marks and soil marks. Two main water channels enclose an area measuring c.550m south west-north east by c.125m, rectangular at either end and curving to follow the contour of the higher ground to the south and east. The southern channel ran at the foot of the scarp to west and north west of the monastic buildings, where it was formerly visible as an earthwork, and supplied a series of ponds and tanks, probably fish ponds, towards the north eastern end of the enclosure. It must also have supplied the water for the drain which ran c.30m to the south of it, below the nuns' rere-dorter. The second, parallel channel, to the north, fed another, separate but adjacent set of large fish ponds at the northern end of the enclosure. Some of the sluice channels, by which the flow of water to, from and between the ponds was controlled, are still clearly visible on the air photographs. Both sets of ponds drained into the north eastern end of the southern channel which also took the foul water from the monastic drain. The two channels converge at the north eastern corner of the enclosure, where the water was taken by an outlet leading westwards. Alongside the main northern channel there are traces of an inner ditch, and the area within the enclosure is subdivided by ditches which run into this and probably served as field drains.

The remains of a medieval tile kiln, chiefly used for the production of roof tiles and presumably associated with the priory, were found and completely excavated in 1969-70 in the area between the fishponds and the eastern end of the northern channel.

The buried remains of a part of a cambered gravel road with chalk metalling run east-west along the southern side of the monument and are included in the scheduling. The road, which is thought to be of Roman date, was first identified in section in the side of a modern drainage dyke along the eastern boundary of Shouldham Park. It is c.5m wide and c.0.8m thick in the middle, with a ditch c.2m wide and c.1.2m deep along the north side and probably on the south, also. The line of the road east of the dyke is shown by traces of chalk in the ploughsoil of the adjacent field and is visible as a soil mark in air photographs. Roman pottery has been found on the surface of ploughsoil to the south of this and both north and south of the projected line of the road to the east, although the survival of archaeological remains below the surface in these areas is uncertain and they are not included in the scheduling.

Underlying the priory buildings at the centre of the monument are the remains of a prehistoric cremation cemetery dated to the Middle Bronze Age (c.1200- 1000 BC). Six cremation burials in pits have been found within a limited area just to the north of the farm buildings, five of them during the digging of a soakaway trench. They were below the priory demolition levels, at a depth of between 1m and 2m. Two of the cremations were in pottery urns, and the remainder had presumably been interred in perishable containers or without any container.

In addition to Abbey Farmhouse, all the farm buildings and outbuildings, some of which contain reused stone, are excluded from the scheduling, together with the garden wall, driveways, trackways and yard surfaces, the farm bungalow and associated outbuildings adjoining the farm entrance to the north, various service poles with their support cables, and all modern boundary fences, although the ground beneath all these features is included. The modern irrigation lake and island located to the north west of the platform containing the remains of the priory church and conventual buildings, is excluded entirely, since the digging of this feature is considered to have removed all underlying archaeology.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


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

Legacy System number: 21335

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 412-414
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 196
Messent, C J W, The Monastic Remains of Norfolk and Suffolk, (1934), 72
Wells, C P B, Clarke, R R, C B A Group VII: Bulletin of Archaeological Discoveries, (1954)
White, W, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk, (1843), 622, 63
White, W, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk, (1845), 622,623
Smallwood, J, 'CBA Group 7 Bulletin' in Shouldham TF 68050956, , Vol. 20, (1973)
4255: West Norfolk, Shouldham,
Edwards, D, TF 6809/AC/AUA 1, (1984)
Edwards, D, TF 6809/AM - ABD, (1989)
Edwards, D, TF 6809/AY/DJZ 8, (1989)
Edwars, D, TF 6809/AM - ABD, (1989)
Ms report on watching brief, Rogerson, A, Abbey Farm, Shouldham, (1979)
Ms report on watching brief, Sylvester, R J, Abbey Farm, Shouldham, (1983)
Report in file, Gregory, T, 4255: West Norfolk, Shouldham, (1979)

End of official listing