Remains of Pentney Priory at Abbey Farm


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Remains of Pentney Priory at Abbey Farm
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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 70172 12037

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St 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. Some 225 of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their revenue. The Augustinians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

The remains of Pentney Priory include a particularly fine and well-preserved example of a 14th century monastic gatehouse and, although little else of the priory is visible above ground, there is evidence for the survival of extensive buried remains which will retain archaeological information for the layout and organisation of the monastic precinct, not only in relation to the religious and conventual life of the priory, but to the domestic and economic activities which sustained that life. The need for a plentiful supply of water for domestic and agricultural purposes was an important factor in the siting of medieval monasteries, and the remains of the elaborate water management system revealed by crop marks is therefore of great interest. Some of the leats and drains of this system are also likely to contain waterlogged deposits in which organic materials, including evidence for the local environment in the past, will be preserved.

The priory has additional interest as one of at least seven monastic foundations situated in or adjacent to the Nar valley, of which two others, including the associated Wormegay priory, were of the Augustinian order.


The monument includes the known extent of the standing and buried remains of an Augustinian priory, situated on a low ridge which, in the medieval period, formed a peninsula surrounded on the west, south and east sides by fen. The area of the former monastic precinct is bounded on the south side by the River Nar, which is thought to have been canalised in its present course during the monastic period.

The priory, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, St Mary and St Mary Magdalen, was founded around 1130 by Robert de Vaux and endowed with various properties including the manor of Pentney. It was among the larger religious foundations in Norfolk, and moderately wealthy, and in 1468 the much smaller Augustinian priory of Wormegay, situated some 4km to the west, was united with it as a subordinate cell. The annual value of the priory was assessed in 1291 at 68 pounds 1 shilling and 9 pence, and in 1535 at 170 pounds 4 shillings and 9 pence. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries the number of canons recorded in residence ranged from 9 to 18, including the prior and sub-prior. In 1536, the year before the Dissolution, 83 other persons, including labourers and household servants, were also recorded as living there. The priory was reported at this time to be well run and in good repair, and was commended for its work in feeding the indigent of the locality. After the Dissolution the site of the priory, with a water mill and the manor of Pentney, was granted to Sir Thomas Mildmay, auditor of the Exchequer.

The gatehouse, which was the principal entry to the monastic precinct, is the only monastic building standing above ground, but buried foundations and associated remains believed to be of the church and conventual buildings are known to survive to the south east of it. An extensive series of buried features, including water supply channels, drains, ditched enclosures and various smaller enclosures probably associated with agricultural, industrial or service buildings, has also been revealed by crop marks (lines of differential crop growth) over a wide area of the precinct to the west, south and south east.

The gatehouse, which is a Listed Building Grade I, is dated to the mid-or late 14th century and displays little evidence of post-medieval alteration. It is built chiefly of flint rubble and local carstone with limestone plinths and dressings and, although it is now roofless and the internal floors have gone, all but one of the walls stand to their full original height and display much architectural detail. The structure includes a wide central gate passage of two bays with a chamber above it, on either side of which is a narrower three storey block. On the northern, external face the arch of the gate opening is flanked by polygonal turrets which front the chambers on either side of the passage, and beyond the turrets the facade extends symmetrically, fronting a rectangular stair turret on the east side and a garderobe (latrine) shaft on the west. The outer arch is set beneath a rectangular frame with tracery incorporating shields for coats of arms in the spandrels. The inner gate arch is flanked by buttresses and lacks the frame and associated decorative detail, although the form and moulding of the arch itself are similar. The internal wall on the west side of the gate passage retains many architectural features, but the wall on the east side has partly fallen. The passage was vaulted, and the springing of the ribbed vaults can still be seen in the angles, together with the outline of the arches of the vaults where they were keyed in to the wall on the west side. Opposing door openings in the northern end of the walls of the passage give access to the ground floor rooms on either side. The apartment on the east side was occupied by the porter. The room to the west of the gate passage and the first floor chamber above it were connected by a stair in the bay of the turret at the northern end, traces of which can be seen in the inner face of the turret wall, and these two rooms formed a small suite, probably for the accommodation of guests or their retainers. The large chamber above the gate passage, the second floor chamber in the eastern block and the first and second floor chambers of the western block, above the porter's lodge, form another and much larger suite of rooms with connecting doorways, although all that survives of the door opening between the central and western chambers is the north jamb. Access to this suite was by way of a spiral stair in the stair turret on the west side. The stair was entered by an external arched doorway in the southern wall of the turret and doorways open off it at first and second floor levels. Other door openings give access to the garderobes adjoining the chambers at all three levels on the western side. The central chamber was heated by a fireplace with brick surround in the wall on its eastern side, and there is another, better preserved fireplace with chamfered brick arch in the outer wall of the first floor chamber in the western block, as well as a recess for a hearth in the wall of the ground floor chamber beneath. The chimney stacks in the east and west walls are constructed externally of brick and may have been later insertions.

The windows in the gatehouse survive intact for the most part and are arranged in regular fashion. The ground floor rooms in the east and west blocks were each lit by a window with two narrow, trefoil headed lights and a square head in the south wall, and a single, trefoil headed lancet in the side wall. In the north wall of the porters lodge there were also two slots through which the porter could observe visitors approaching the gate. The first and second floor lateral chambers each had a window in the south wall with two trefoil headed lights under an arched hood mould, and a single, trefoil headed lancet in the north wall. They also had a single, square headed window in the side wall, those of the first floor chambers being small, with two quinquefoil headed lights, and those of the second floor chambers being much larger, with trefoil headed lights. The central chamber was lit by two windows centred above the north and south gate arches respectively, and of the same pattern as the south windows of the second floor lateral chambers.

At the north east and north west angles of the gatehouse there are two short stubs of broken wall extending east and west. The wall on the east side may have turned northwards, along the eastern side of the approach to the gate, to meet the western end of a length of wall which survives approximately 45m to the north. This wall, which extends for a distance of about 45m eastwards, is constructed of carstone, stands to a height of about 2m and probably marks part of the northern boundary of the monastic precinct on that side. Two more short sections of a ruined carstone wall survive about 48m and 72m to the west of the gatehouse respectively. These stand to a maximum height of about 1.5m above a low bank, on a line east-west but offset slightly to the south of the corresponding stub of wall on the gatehouse.

The plan of the monastic church and conventual buildings, which were the heart of the monastic complex is not known in detail but, according to the usual arrangement, would have included three ranges of buildings grouped around a rectangular cloister abutting the church. The western claustral range normally contained an undercroft for storage and an outer parlour, with lodgings for the prior or guests above. The south range would have contained the canon's refectory, and the east range would have included the chapter house, centrally positioned, where the canons met daily to discuss the business of the priory, with adjacent apartments, and the dorter (dormitory) above. Nothing is visible above ground, but the foundations of the buildings would have been substantial and remains of these, with associated archaeological deposits, will survive below ground. Foundations have been observed in the area to the south east of the gatehouse, and associated finds have included fragments of medieval painted glass and of locally made floor tiles. Abbey Farmhouse and various associated farm buildings which occupy part of the site also include much reused dressed stone and medieval architectural fragments believed to be from the monastic buildings. The farmhouse, which is a Listed Building Grade II, dates to the early 18th century. Approximately 80m to the south west of the gatehouse there is a rectangular raised platform on which a house or cottages formerly stood. If, as is most likely, the conventual buildings were to the south of the church, this feature may mark the site of the reredorter (latrine block), which was normally located at the projecting southern end of the east claustral range.

The buried features revealed by crop marks cover an area of approximately 13.5ha extending towards the river. Approximately 95m to the south of the gatehouse, aerial photographs of the crop marks record linear features thought to represent the foundation trenches of walls and buildings around a yard measuring about 30sq m. Evidence of domestic or agricultural activity in and to the north of this area has been recorded in the form of medieval pottery, shell and bone found on the surface during field walking of the site. Two other rectangular enclosures of similar size are partially defined to the east and south east of the raised building platform. Larger enclosures defined by buried ditches are likely to have been paddocks, gardens or orchards.

Many of the ditches are of substantial size and have the appearance of an elaborate water management system such as was often constructed to supply water needed for domestic use and sanitation and for agricultural and possibly industrial purposes within the monastic precinct, as well as for drainage. A group of rectangular features about 105m south west of the gatehouse were perhaps fishponds linked to this system.

Also included in the scheduling is the emplacement for a World War II spigot mortar located in a hedge bank approximately 118m west of the priory gatehouse, sited to cover a bridge across the river approximately 145m to the west. All that is visible of this is the top of the mounting for the mortar, consisting of a concrete drum or `thimble' about 0.9m in diameter, with a convex upper surface in which is set a central, stainless steel pin. This would have stood within a dugout which will survive as a buried feature.

The farmhouse and associated buildings, the installations of a clay pigeon shooting range with floodlights to the east of the farm buildings together with all fences, gates and stiles, service poles, footpath signs, surfaces of tracks, paths and yards, inspection chambers, water troughs and supply pipes and supports for oil tanks 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
RCHME, , Historic Buildings Report: Pentney Priory, (1992)
Silverster, R J, 'East Anglian Archaeology' in The Fenland Project 3: Norfolk Survey, Marshland and Nar Valley, , Vol. 45, (), 131f
Edwards, D, NAU TF 7012/ABB, (1989)
Title: Pentney: Enclosure Award Map Source Date: 1807 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: NRO Ref C/Sca 2 129


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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