St Benet's Abbey Gatehouse and adjacent section of precinct wall


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
St Benet's Abbey, Cow Holm, Horning, Norfolk


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Statutory Address:
St Benet's Abbey, Cow Holm, Horning, Norfolk

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

North Norfolk (District Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:


Mid- to late C14 gatehouse to St Benet’s Abbey incorporating a mid-C18 mill in the ruins and an adjacent section of precinct wall.

Reasons for Designation

The C14 gatehouse to St Benet’s Abbey and the adjacent section of precinct wall are listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: they are the only substantial standing structures to survive of the abbey and thus provide important evidence of its wealth, status and impressive architectural quality; * Proportion of original fabric: a significant proportion of the original fabric of the gatehouse survives which reveals its earliest configuration, and together with the section of precinct wall, demonstrates medieval masonry and craftsmanship of the highest order; * Historic interest: the C18 windmill is notable as a very early example of a brick tower windmill and is a distinctive feature of the post-Dissolution evolution of the abbey; * Group value: the gatehouse and adjacent section of precinct wall have strong group value with the scheduled site of St Benet’s Abbey of which they are integral elements (St Benet's Abbey, National Heritage List 1003149).


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 (scheduled and listed at Grade II*). The abbey buildings evolved over numerous building phases from the late C11 to at least the mid-C15. The number of monks 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. St Benet’s was the only religious house in England not to be dissolved by Henry VIII who appointed William Reppes, Bishop of Norwich, as abbot in 1536, 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. These remains have since disappeared.

The gatehouse was built in the mid-to late C14 and it survived in a reasonable state until a windmill was erected inside it in the mid-C18. An idea of its appearance prior to this can be obtained from a sketch made by the antiquary John Kirkpatrick, some time before 1722 (reproduced in Pestell, p. 8). The sketch shows the outer entrance of the gatehouse from the west with its lost upper storey which had a large central window flanked by pairs of elaborately carved niches. The first floor was probably lost in the mid-C18 when the drainage mill was erected over the gatehouse in order to benefit from its masonry footings. This allowed the mill to be built higher than most examples of this date in the area. The mill was designed for pumping water to drain the surrounding marshes and improve them for agriculture, although it was probably also used to grind seed and grain. It fell out of commission in the 1860s after the sails blew off. In 2012 repair work was carried out on the gatehouse and windmill which had been damaged by flooding, involving the replacement of c.40% of the brickwork of the mill.


Mid- to late C14 gatehouse to St Benet’s Abbey with a mill built into the ruins in the mid-C18.

MATERIALS: the south-east and north-west façades of the gatehouse are faced with knapped flint and ashlar flushwork, and are decorated with stone relief carvings. Other walls are faced with red brick. The mill is constructed of red brick.

PLAN: the gatehouse is situated on the north-west edge of the D-shaped abbey precinct. It has two chambers, the north-west one being subsumed by the conical-shaped windmill. A fragment of precinct wall extends from the north-west side. EXTERIOR: the north-west chamber is entered through a two-pointed arch with four orders of mouldings, the inner order decorated with twelve carved forms, possibly grotesque figures or beasts, although only ten survive. The following three orders have chamfered faces and deep, three-quarter hollows. The spandrels are filled with huge relief carvings: an armed man bearing a staff to the left, and a rampant beast to the right, variously identified as either a lion or dragon. The frieze across the façade at first floor level is fragmentary. Flanking the arch are two polygonal turrets which extend just beyond the outer wall of the windmill. Most of the side walls of this chamber have been demolished by the insertion of the mill. Further south-east from the entrance arch is a vaulted narthex, of which three moulded transverse ribs survive with a ridge-piece and bosses.

The narthex opens into the second (south-east) chamber, the side walls of which survive. It was originally vaulted in two bays: the three surviving responds have either single or clustered columns with moulded bases, foliage capitals and vaulting springers. The outside of the entrance archway on the south-east side comprises three different orders, separated by three-quarter hollows. The apex of the outer order has been repaired in red brick, a repair that extends further into the left spandrel than the right which are otherwise faced with flushwork bands incorporating the devices of England and France. The inside of the arch comprises two moulded orders, the chamfered faces separated by a triangular recess rather than a hollow. The outside of the arch is flanked by pilaster buttresses with ogee gabled niches, either side of which is a short expanse of wall followed by diagonal buttresses. The wall between the buttresses on the right hand side is wider to accommodate an arched stairway which rises to the now demolished first floor. The stair has brick steps and the upper part has a stone newel post. There is evidence that the first floor contained two rooms which may have been used as a chapel and/or accommodation for a gatekeeper.

The mill is circular in plan and has the form of a truncated cone with an ovoid opening at the top. It has a number of doorways and windows on three levels, most of which have been blocked, indicating a change in function. It is entered on the south-eastern face through a doorway which has a segmental brick arch, as have the other apertures. There are additional blocked doorways to the east and west, and two windows at ground level facing north and north-west. Between them, at a slightly higher level, is a relieving arch which possibly indicates the position of a shaft to a drainage pump. At middle level there is a blocked window and tall doorways facing east and west which formerly opened onto a wooden platform which ran around the building. On the upper stage of the mill there are blocked windows facing north-west and south-east.

Adjacent to the west side of the gatehouse is the only substantial surviving section of the abbey’s 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 contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
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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)
RCHME Survey , The Abbey of St Benet at Holm, Horning, Norfolk, December 1994,


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 06 Oct 1999
Reference: IOE01/01066/29
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr W.E. Butland. Source Historic England Archive
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