Marham Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Marham Abbey
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TF 70652 09833

Reasons for Designation

A nunnery was a settlement built to sustain a community of religious women. Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship, accommodation and subsistence. The main elements are the church and domestic buildings arranged around a cloister. This central enclosure may be accompanied by an outer court and gatehouse, the whole bounded by a precinct wall, earthworks or moat. Outside the enclosure, fishponds, mills, field systems, stock enclosures and barns may occur. The earliest English nunneries were founded in the seventh century AD but most of these had fallen out of use by the ninth century. A small number of these were later refounded. The tenth century witnessed the foundation of some new houses but the majority of medieval nunneries were established from the late 11th century onwards. Nunneries were established by most of the major religious orders of the time, including the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans. It is known from documentary sources that at least 153 nunneries existed in England, of which the precise locations of only around 100 sites are known. Few sites have been examined in detail and as a rare and poorly understood medieval monument type all examples exhibiting survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Marham Abbey was one of only two abbeys (as opposed to priories) founded for Cistercian nuns in England, and the only foundation of the Cistercian order in Norfolk. The building remains and earthworks which are preserved within the southern part of the monastic precinct have remained largely undisturbed since the abbey was demolished, and illustrate many aspects of the organisation and economy of the community, including both the conventual life, centred on the church and cloister, and the domestic and agricultural activities which sustained it. The archaeological information which is contained in these remains and the associated buried deposits, relating to nearly 300 years of the abbey's existence from its foundation to the Dissolution, will complement the extensive, though limited information contained in the historical records. The fishponds, constructed for the purpose of breeding and storing fish to provide a constant and sustainable source of food and characteristically associated with monasteries and high status residences, are a good example of their kind. The surviving windows in the south wall of the abbey church are unusual in form and architectural detail and thus of particular interest, as are the details of the ruined parlour in the western claustral range. The abbey has additional importance as one of a group of seven monastic foundations of different orders and varying size located in and immediately adjacent to the Nar valley, the two nearest being a Gilbertian double house for both monks and nuns at Shouldham, about 2.5km to the west and an Augustinian priory at Pentney, a similar distance to the north west.


The monument, which is on the western side of Marham village, opposite Holy Trinity Church, includes the standing ruins, earthworks and buried remains of a Cistercian nunnery, which are situated in what was the southern part of the medieval abbey precinct. In the medieval period the precinct was bordered to the west by peat fen and to the south by a strip of common land and a driftway. The remains of the abbey church and the adjacent conventual buildings occupy the highest part of the site towards the eastern side of the precinct, and to the west of the conventual buildings are the remains of the abbey fishponds with associated water management features. Beyond the fishponds are the turf-covered foundations of various agricultural and service buildings.

The abbey is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and Saints Barbara and Edmund and the remains are Listed Grade II*. It was founded in 1249 by Isabel, widow of Hugh de Albini, Earl of Arundel, and daughter of William, Earl Warenne, and in 1252 was formally incorporated into the Waverley Abbey, the mother house of the Cistercian order in England. It was relatively small and, according to the surviving records, housed between 10 and 15 nuns, although the usual number was probably around 13, together with a priest and various lay servants. The abbey was exempted from taxation in 1291, ostensibly because of its poverty, and was pardoned on several occasions subsequently for non-payment of fees due the Crown although, on the evidence of accounts dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, the abbey was not at that time in financial difficulties and its holdings, which included a manor in Marham, appear to have been well managed. The clear annual value in 1535, just before its suppression, was assessed at 39 pounds, one penny and three farthings. In the following year the house was reported to be `in sore decaye' but this may have been because the lead had already been taken from the roofs several months previously. Following the Dissolution, the site of the abbey and its demesne lands were leased to Thomas Bukworth, and in 1546 were granted to Sir Nicholas Hare and John Hare.

The abbey precinct is known to have been enclosed by a wall which is referred to in a document of 1627, and in the 18th century was recorded as still standing, at least in part. The line of this wall along the southern boundary, shown on a map of about 1734, is still marked by a discontinuous bank up to 0.75m in height, below which foundations probably survive. All that is now visible of the monastic church is the south wall of the aisleless nave which has been dated to the 13th century, and this, for much of its former length of approximately 37m, still stands to almost its full original height and retains some plaster on the upper part of the internal face. It is built of clunch (local chalk) with freestone dressings and includes, at clerestory level, two complete circular windows, one with quatrefoil and the other with sexfoil tracery, and part of a third at the eastern end. A fourth window, now gone, is mentioned in an 18th century description. The foundations of the remainder of the church can no longer be traced on the surface but will survive below ground. According to the local historian, Parkin, those of the north wall were still visible in the 18th century, showing that the nave was approximately 9m wide. The church as a whole is estimated to have been about 62m in length and was probably cruciform in plan, with transepts to the north and south of a central crossing between the nave and the east end containing the presbytery.

The conventual buildings were ranged around three sides of a cloister about 31m square which abutted the south side of the nave, and corbels to support the pentice roof of the north cloister alley can be seen below the windows on the south face of the nave wall, with a stone weathering course above. A vaulted apartment at the northern end of the west claustral range, with an upper storey chamber above it, remained intact into the 19th century, the upper chamber having been converted into a dovehouse, and the lower part, according to Parkin, used for storing firewood and peat. The ruined walls of the lower apartment, which was probably the outer parlour of the abbey and has been dated to the 14th century, still stand in places to a height of about 5m, and are faced with mortared flint on a clunch core. Fallen sections of the springing of the vault, together with three of the supporting corbels, all of limestone, also survive. One of the corbels, from the south east corner, is carved with the figure of a man. The remainder of the west range and the south and east ranges are marked by earthworks up to 1.5m high in which outlines of the footings of outer walls and internal dividing walls can clearly be traced. According to the usual practice in nunneries, the west range would have contained the abbess's apartments, normally on the upper floor, and probably the accommodation provided for guests; an inventory made at the time of the Dissolution mentions a guest chamber and two adjacent chambers. The south range includes at least two apartments, one measuring approximately 20m in length by 6m which was probably the nuns' refectory, and a smaller one to the west of it which was probably a buttery or kitchen. The east range, which projects beyond the eastern end of the south range, would have contained the chapter house, in which the nuns met to discuss the daily business of the abbey, with other apartments to the south of it and the dorter (dormitory) above these.

Adjoining the main claustral complex to the south was a smaller court measuring approximately 20m east-west by 14m, enclosed on the east side by the projecting southern end of the east range and on the west by a building which abutted the western end of the south claustral range. The refectory in most Cistercian monasteries for men was aligned north-south in this fashion in order to allow for the additional accommodation required for the lay brothers of the order, but in this case this is more likely to have been part of the kitchen complex, however, since the community at Marham did not include lay sisters. A third range along the south side of the court may have included an infirmary, and there is evidence that it extended eastwards beyond the southern end of the east range.

About 64m WNW of the abbey church are the well-defined, turf-covered footings of a group of buildings ranged along the north, west and south sides of a courtyard measuring 14m square, the east side of which was enclosed by a single wall. These were probably agricultural buildings, perhaps used for housing animals. Three parallel ridges running westwards from the outer wall of the range on the west side perhaps mark the footings of walls dividing stalls in a shed open on the west side. About 34m to the south of this and some 76m to the west of the claustral complex are the equally well-defined remains of a large, rectangular building approximately 18m in length NNE-SSW by 7m, divided by a single internal cross wall. They stand to a height of up to 1.5m and the masonry, where exposed, is of mortared flint rubble. A low, raised platform to the south east of this may have supported less substantial buildings, as may a group of sub-rectangular platforms towards the south eastern corner of the precinct.

The abbey required a constant and reliable supply of water for domestic and agricultural purposes within the precinct, and this was probably obtained from springs nearby. The monastic fishponds with their associated water management features lie immediately to the west of the claustral complex and east of the agricultural buildings. Channels which supplied and drained the ponds, and which can be seen as linear depressions up to 0.5m wide and 0.7m deep, form a quadrangular enclosure with maximum dimensions of approximately 48m NNE-SSW by 46m. Across the western end of this enclosure are the remains of an alignment of three ponds, visible as a rectangular hollow about 38m in length and up to 8m wide and 1.6m deep, subdivided into three by slight banks which mark the positions of connecting sluices. The ponds at the northern and southern ends are connected by short sluice channels to the surrounding water course. Between these ponds and the channel to the west of them is a low, flat-topped bank about 7m wide. In the north eastern corner of the enclosure is a hollow, about 20m long north-south by 10m wide, which may represent another pond, and on the western side of this is a sub-rectangular platform measuring about 10m by 2.5m which probably supported a building. Part of the channel which probably carried the outflow from the system is visible to the north of the enclosure as a linear hollow about 0.5m deep and 6m wide, running NNW-SSE for a distance of some 52m. Beyond this it has been completely infilled, but survives as a buried feature which has produced a crop mark (differential growth in the grass above it) recorded on aerial photographs. This shows that it continues on an alignment NNE for a further 110m and then turns north westwards towards the lower ground of the fen. A parallel buried feature is aligned on the group of buildings north west of the fishponds. The remains of other water control channels, probably part of the supply system, can be seen in the southern part of the precinct.

All field fences and gates, together with a garden wall abutting the north side of the church wall, path surfaces, the fence supports and surface of a hard tennis court in the grounds of Abbey House, a shed situated to the north of the area of the fishponds and goal posts on the playing field are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

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.

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Books and journals
Blomefield, F, An Essay towards a Topographical History of Norfolk , (1806), 384-393
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 369f
Gilchrist, R, Oliva, M, Religious Women in Medieval East Anglia: History and Archaeology, (1993)
Cushion, B, Marham Abbey SMR4483, (1995)
Edwards, D, NAU TF7009/AE/DKS4, (1989)
Nichols, J, The History and Cartulary of the Cistercian Nuns of Marham Abbey, 1974, Unpub PhD, Kent State University
Norfolk R O: Hare 6815, Field Book, Marham, (1734)
Title: Map of Marham Source Date: 1734 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Norfolk R O: Hare 6814


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.

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