Site of St Mary's Abbey


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1020141

Date first listed: 09-Feb-1981

Date of most recent amendment: 09-Mar-2001


Ordnance survey map of Site of St Mary's Abbey
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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: West Dereham

National Grid Reference: TF 66146 00651, TF 66203 00261


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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. The Premonstratensian order, or "White Canons", were not monks in the strict sense but rather communities of priests living together under a rule. The first Premonstratensian establishments were double houses (for men and women), but later they founded some 45 houses for men in England. The Premonstratensian order modelled itself on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion and founded all its monasteries in rural locations.

The site of St Mary's Abbey includes a variety of features within a precinct boundary which remains intact. Although very little of the fabric of the monastic buildings is visible above ground, crop marks have provided remarkably detailed evidence for the survival of their buried remains, and these and the extensive earthworks to the south of them illustrate the layout and organisation of the monastic precinct and will contain valuable archaeological information concerning both the conventual life of the monastic community, centred on the church and cloister, and the domestic and agricultural activities which sustained it, as well as evidence for events following the Dissolution. Elaborate systems to supply and control the water needed for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes were often a notable feature of medieval monasteries, and the moat and the extensive complex of surviving fishponds and other water management features constitute an important element of the complex as a whole. Many of these features will contain waterlogged deposits in which organic materials, including evidence for the local environment in the past, are likely to be preserved. The remains of the great house which was later constructed on the site give the monument additional interest.


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The monument, which is in two separate areas of protection to the north and south of an east-west drain, includes the remains of St Mary's Abbey within a monastic precinct surrounded by a moat. Also included are buried remains of an early post-medieval great house which was constructed within the precinct. The site lies on the south east side of West Dereham village, about 1.3km SSW of St Andrew's Church, on low ground to the north of the fen bordering the river Wissey.

The abbey was a daughter house of Welbeck abbey and was founded in 1188 by Hubert Walter, Dean of York, for canons of the Premonstratensian order. The foundation was confirmed by King John in 1199 in a charter which exempted the abbey and its tenants from all kinds of service and taxation. It was among the larger religious houses in Norfolk, with up to 26 canons in the late 13th century, and was also comparatively wealthy, with extensive estates, chiefly in Norfolk. The recorded annual income in 1291 was 169 pounds, 3 shillings and 8 pence, and in 1535 was assessed at 228 pounds. Following the Dissolution in 1539 the site with associated lands was granted by Henry VIII to Thomas Dereham of Crimplesham. A house built on the site in the later 16th century was altered and extended in the 1690s by Sir Thomas Dereham on his return from Italy, where he had been envoy at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This house was largely demolished around 1810, the remaining part being converted into a farmhouse. The latter, which has been restored from a ruinous condition, is a Listed Building Grade II*.

The monastic precinct enclosed by the moat is quadrangular and measures approximately 773m in length NNW-SSE by 330m in width at the northern end, narrowing slightly towards the south. The monastic church and conventual buildings occupied an area of slightly higher ground in the northern part of the precinct, with a gatehouse and other structures to the north west, and although almost all of these buildings have been demolished, the buried foundations survive and have produced crop marks (lines of differential crop growth) which have revealed their plan in some detail. In the southern part of the precinct there are earthworks representing various water management features thought to be of monastic date, as well as an area of former cultivation.

The moat, which marks the boundary of the precinct ranges from 8m to 14m in width and is partly infilled, the outer part open to a depth of about 1m and the inner part recut as a drain. It was fed by running water from streams entering it at the north west and north east corners, with an outlet at the south west corner. A stream to the north east still supplies water to the eastern arm of the moat, but on the west side the water is now channeled through a modern drain outside the moat and the area of protection. A causeway across the north western corner of the moat is not original.

The outer gatehouse which gave entrance to the monastic complex stood within the moated enclosure towards the north western corner, and the approach to this was probably from the west, along a track which is shown on a map of 1826, following a line still marked as a public right of way. From the plan of the foundations, as recorded on aerial photographs, it can be seen that at ground floor level it comprised a wide central passage of two bays with apartments on either side which would have included a porter's lodge, and an annexe to the south west. From the north western and north eastern corners of the gatehouse, walls run respectively west and NNE to the inner edge of the moat. There is evidence for a building running south eastwards from the gatehouse on the eastern side and to the east of this are the buried remains of a large rectangular building measuring approximately 30m NNW-SSE by 10m which was probably a barn. The aerial photographs show a roadway running south eastwards from the main gatehouse towards an inner gatehouse which, after the Dissolution, was incorporated in the post-medieval house and which is recorded in descriptions and illustrations. It was constructed of brick with freestone dressings and was of three storeys with octagonal turrets at the corners and an oriel window on the inner, south side above the arch of the gate. On the evidence of the recorded architectural details it is dated to the early 16th century, late in the history of the abbey. A range of buildings thought to be of the same date extended westwards from this inner gate. Part of the southern wall of this range survives in the north wall of the present house, and associated foundations have been recorded to the north and west in the course of limited excavations. An isolated rectangular building located about 73m ENE of the inner gatehouse was perhaps a stable.

The remains of the monastic church are to the east of the site of the inner gatehouse. Only the eastern end and parts of the southern side have been defined by crop marks, which show that it was around 65m in overall length, with a square ended presbytery flanked by shorter aisles at the eastern end and transepts to north and south of a central crossing east of the nave. The conventual buildings were grouped around a quadrangular cloister measuring roughly 27m on each side adjoining the south side of the church. The plan of the eastern claustral range can be traced in some detail on the aerial photographs, and the outlines of the western and southern ranges are also visible in part. The eastern range included the chapter house, where the canons met daily to discuss the business of the abbey, with ground floor apartments to the east which probably included a warming house, above which would have been the dorter (dormitory). The chapter house, projecting from the eastern side of the range, was octagonal in plan with a central column to support a vaulted roof. According to the usual monastic practice the refectory would have been in the southern range and the west range would have contained storage chambers below, probably with an outer parlour at the northern end, where the canons could meet lay visitors, and apartments for the abbot or for guests above. Immediately to the south of the western and southern ranges are remains of other buildings which, on the evidence of their location, are likely to have been kitchens. The monastic cemetery would have been to the east of the church and chapter house, and on the southern side this area was bounded by a wall running eastwards from the eastern claustral range, south of the chapter house. In the angle between this wall and the southern end of the eastern claustral range was a rectangular courtyard, on the eastern side of which are the remains of the infirmary, a rectangular building about 25m in length north-south, with a smaller rectangular structure, probably the infirmary chapel, projecting from its eastern side.

About 100m to the south west of the claustral complex, near the southern end of the first area, are the remains of another group of buildings. Part of one of these was converted into stables in the 17th century and this is a Listed Building Grade II*. To the east of it are the buried remains of a substantial structure which may have been a guest house. This was about 45m in length east-west, L shaped in plan, with a central, projecting porch to the south. Running eastwards from this are the buried remains of a conduit or drain lined with masonry, and this is joined by a similar drain running south eastwards from the claustral complex, probably to carry foul water from the kitchens and latrine blocks at the southern ends of the dorter and infirmary.

To the south east of the buildings is a pond containing two rectangular islands, symmetrically arranged. This has the appearance of an ornamental water feature and may relate to the gardens of the post-medieval house, although it is possible that it has monastic origins.

The east-west drain, which divides the two areas of the monument and is not included in the scheduling, is thought to be a recutting of a medieval leat which supplied water from the moat to the system of fishponds and other water management features in the southern part. The water was conducted southward from this leat by three more leats or conduits which issue into the southern arm of the moat. The first of these, on the western side of the area is up to 8m wide and 1.5m deep and is partly embanked on the western side. The northern end of it is offset to the west, and to the east of and parallel to this northern end and joining at the offset are the remains of another channel, visible as a shallow linear depression. From the junction at the offset a short connecting channel runs eastwards to the junction between a rectangular pond measuring about 45m north-south by 40m and a broad rectilinear depression about 10m wide and open to a depth of 0.8m which extends southwards from the pond for a distance of approximately 135m. The pond was fed by a supply channel running from the east-west leat into the north east corner, and there are traces of an outlet leading westwards from the southern end of the adjoining rectilinear depression. The characteristics of this pond and the associated rectilinear depression suggest that they may have been associated with a small water mill, the water course to the west functioning as a bypass channel, but it is possible that they were constructed as formal garden features relating to the post-medieval house, or were adapted as such. To the east of them are the remains of the second north-south conduit, visible as a linear depression up to 4m wide, on the western side of which are the remains of two rectangular fishponds aligned north-south and connected by a short sluice channel. The northern of the two ponds, which is the larger, measuring approximately 22m by 10m, is connected to the conduit by another sluice channel. The third conduit, to the east of this, runs diagonally from the north east, converging on and joining the second conduit towards the southern end of the precinct. Between the northern ends of the second and third conduits is a large rectangular depression measuring about 47m long, north- south and 34m wide, interpreted as another fishpond. This is connected to the eastern conduit by an outlet channel issuing from the south west corner, and at the northern end can be seen the slight remains of a short inlet channel through which water was supplied from the adjoining east-west leat. To the south of the outlet channel is a slight mound which may have supported a building.

In the north western corner of the southern area, about 12m to the south of the east-west leat, is a low mound which marks the site of a rectangular building recorded as a crop mark on aerial photographs.

The south eastern part of the precinct, beyond the water management features, is divided into strips between 8m and 16m wide by a series of parallel east- west ditches open to a depth of up to 0.6m. This resembles, on a small scale, a type of field system known as dylings, characteristic of the fenland region, and is believed to represent an area of cultivation.

The great house completed in the late 17th century is recorded in 18th century descriptions and drawings. The frontage on the north side was 63m in length and three storeys in height and was Italianate in style, incorporating the 16th century inner gatehouse at the centre and with wings to the rear at either end. The gatehouse opened on to a court 18m deep and 15m wide with a single storey corridor on the south side and a third, internal wing on the west which contained the kitchen suite. To the west of the internal wing was a second, much narrower court which formed the service area. The foundations of the eastern wing have produced crop marks from which the general ground plan can be determined, and the site of the foundations of the inner gatehouse is marked by a slight rise in the ground surface to the north east of the surviving part of the house. The standing building incorporates the internal wing of the original house, and architectural analysis of the fabric prior to restoration has revealed that it dates largely from the late 16th century, with late 17th and early 19th century modifications. Details of the demolished parts of the southern range shown in the 18th century drawings are also largely consistent with a late 16th century date of origin, although they may have incorporated monastic buildings. The approach to the house was from the north east, by way of a bridge across the eastern arm of the moat. The bridge is flanked by gate piers which are Listed Grade II*. The bridge itself is late 17th century in date and Listed Grade II.

The farmhouse, stables and gate piers, all outbuildings, the surface of the modern driveway and all paved surfaces, together with service poles, inspection chambers, water troughs and all fences, gates and pens, including a pheasant pen adjacent to the northern pond 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.

Legacy System number: 30588

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Aitkens, P, The Stables at West Dereham Abbey... A Survey, (1998)
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 414-418
Paget Baggs, A, The Country Seat. 'West Dereham House, Norfolk', (1970), 70-71
Williamson, T, The Origins of Norfolk, (1994), 145-146
Edwards, D, 'East Anglian Archaeology' in The Air Photographs Collection of Norfolk Archaeological Unit, , Vol. 8, (1978), 89-92
4396 West Dereham,
Aitkens, P, Analysis of Upstanding Buildings..on the Site of St Mary's Abbey, (1994)
Edwards, D, NLA TF 6600 A-AU, (1996)
NAU Report No 179, Penn, K, Further Observations at St Mary's Abbey, West Dereham, NAU Report No 179, (1996)
NAU Report No 339, Penn, K, Excavations at St Mary's Abbey..., on the possible stable range, (1998)
NAU Report No 7, Penn, K, Archaeological Investigations at the Site of St Mary's Abbey, (1991)
NAU Report No 87, Forrest, K, Archaeological Evaluation at Site of St Mary's Abbey, (1992)
penes Reed, Wayman & Walton, (1777)

End of official listing