St Benet-at-Holm

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:31 am

St Benet's Abbey, NorfolkDavid and Marilyn had just been touring Norfolk and told us about St Benet’s.  “It’s exactly the sort of place to be featured on ABAB,” Marilyn enthused.  I had never heard of it; so of course, whilst making a progress through East Anglia, we decided to drop in.

St Benet-at-HolmThe once great fortified abbey of St Benet-at-Holm is an ideal place to visit for those that can cope with a brief absence of facilities, including kitsch gift-shop and heaving canteen.  There is also a serene lack of feral children.  Indeed, it is just perfect for the want of most things, except atmosphere, which it has in abundance, alongside a certain raw beauty.  The single-track road to St Benet’s takes you deep into the Norfolk Broads, worryingly peters out past some farm buildings and then gives up totally.  Just as you’re nervously thinking you will have to reverse miles back up a narrow bridleway, a small car park for abbey visitors wondrously appears on your left.  A short walk then takes you under big skies to the remains of an intricate 14th century gatehouse, through which incongruously pokes the unmistakeable brick shell of a long-abandoned windmill.  Disconcertingly, boats on the nearby River Bure drift along the horizon, seeming to float on top of long grass and rushes.  Because this is one of the flattest, lowest, parts of Britain, when the vegetation is high the horizon is roughly at eye-level and the river cannot be seen until you’re almost in it.

St Benet'sA path through the foliage past the gatehouse mill leads to the river and a small quay, where a couple of pleasure-craft are moored up.  Others chug up and downstream, their rippling wakes lap-lapping the riverbank, their inhabitants happily slurping tea or beer another world away.

Close by the old gatehouse, a useful information board illustrates the sheer size of the old abbey complex.  It was huge.  Defensive walls and ditch on three sides and the Bure to the south once enclosed an area of some 38 acres.  In the distance, on higher ground – a relative term in these parts – are the few visible remains of the enormous abbey church.  St Benet’s had extensive fishponds, apparently, and at one time owned 28 churches in Norfolk, property in 76 parishes and the right to dig peat in 12 of them.  According to Historic England, before the Reformation, over 700 monasteries were founded in England alone.  Not for the first time, I wondered at the energy and drive that created and sustained these astonishing places.  They were the power-houses of medieval Britain, possessing disproportionately immense wealth and power, but also often providing local employment, education, healthcare and social support.

St Benet's AbbeyTradition is that, perhaps as early as 816AD, a small company of Saxon monks arrived at a solitary spot among the marshes at the junction of the Rivers Bure and Thurne.  Here, under the leadership of an erstwhile hermit, Suneman, they erected a chapel dedicated to St Benedict.  The holm part of the name means ‘island’.  But the district was devastated by the Great Heathen Army of the Danes in 870, the community’s buildings were destroyed, the brothers cruelly slaughtered or scattered.  Another holy man, Wolfric, re-established the monastery with seven companions in the year 955.  And this reclusive fraternity existed peacefully for the next sixty years until, by miraculous intervention in 1019, the illustrious King Cnut endowed it with the manors of Horning, Ludham and Neatishead. Further endowments followed.  The abbot in 1020 was Elsin (or maybe Aelfsige) and there were 26 monks.  It is said that twelve of these, with half the abbey’s books and furniture, were dispatched by Cnut to form the nucleus of the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. Under Aelfsige (or Elsin) the church, which had previously been of timber and mud, was reconstructed in stone.

River Bure, NorfolkAnd so, for the next five hundred years, the black-cowled monks of St Benedict at Holm developed their property and went about their work, prayer and spiritual study.  Their number varied between about 22 and 26, supported by lay brothers and servants who undertook many of the manual chores.  Like all religious houses, their fortunes waxed and waned.  In the winter of 1287-88, they suffered terrible flooding.  Astonishingly, the abbey survived the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the only religious house in England to do so.  However, in practical terms, this was meaningless.  In 1536 the King appointed William Reppes, Bishop of Norwich as abbot, granting to him all of the abbey properties in return for those of the bishopric. Reppes stripped the abbey estate and by c1540 the last monk had gone. The land was let out for agricultural use, the buildings plundered for building materials and, a mere short century later, the site was in ruins.  By the 1700s little remained.  The windmill was erected in c1780, utilising the strength of the old gatehouse, and fell out of use in the 1860s.  One possible remnant of the abbey was a cottage, known as the Chequers Inn, which stood on the riverbank serving the wherrymen up to the late 19th century.  Apparently, it boasted a 14th century arched Gothic doorway; but the place was badly damaged by a fire and demolished early in the 20th century.

As an interesting footnote, the Bishop of Norwich remains to this day technically the Abbot of St Benet’s, and leads an annual open-air service at the site on the first Sunday of August.

St Benet's Abbey churchThough there is little to see, it seemed rude not to explore the site in the direction of the abbey church while we were about it.  The stroll gives a further sense of ancient scale.  On the spot where the high altar once stood is an oak cross, fashioned from wood donated in 1987 by HM Queen Elizabeth from the royal estate at Sandringham.  Cows graze among the modest remains of thick flint and rubble walls.  I have walked among cattle for decades and it never used to bother me, or them; but I have experienced several unpleasant encounters of the bovine kind in recent years.  To my knowledge, at least two people have been killed in the UK this year alone, so I’m wary.  And before anyone pipes up that it’s something to do with cows protecting their calves, or being curious, I’m afraid my first-hand experience is that they can simply be gratuitously aggressive, farmland yobs on a night out.  On this occasion, the creatures were not interested in us and peaceably ambled away.  We stood and watched a sailing boat tacking up the Bure.  It’s a lovely spot.  I’d like to visit when there’s a mist on the water, or when a sharp frost decorates the ground.  Just over a mile away as the crow flies, the sails of Thurne Mill stand out on the skyline.  It is hard to imagine the great enterprise that would have surrounded us five centuries ago.  Near where the north transept would have been is a bench with, surprisingly, an audio post.  We pressed a button and listened as the sound of monks singing drifted eerily over the few remaining bits of their once great church.

The cross at St Benet'sI think Marilyn was right, don’t you?  I know she’ll be pleased to hear that.  St Benet’s is looked after by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust.   The site has never been excavated; you can’t help wondering what would be uncovered if it was decided to undertake that task.

St Benet's Abbey

54 thoughts on “St Benet-at-Holm”

  1. It has been a while since I pop in from the US to see what you’re up to, but as usual, it’s something interesting that makes me want to buy a ticket and fly to England for walk through your history. The audio feature in that very desolate place must have been quite stirring. I’m left wondering why old Henry VIII overlooked it. Maybe it was just too low-key? Anyway, thanks for another arm chair adventure.

  2. I have never visited St Benet-at-Holm and knew hardly anything about the abbey so thank you very much for the tour and historical information. This post so well researched and illustrated, as usual. I am sure there must have been some devious or political reason why the Bishop of Norwich was granted the abbey in exchange for properties belonging to the bishopric. Was this not the bishop involved in Kett’s Rebellion?…..hmmm.

    1. You need to get yourself over there, Clare! I’m sure I should know more about Kett’s Rebellion that I do. The little I know is fascinating. Read CJ Sansom – he explains it much better than I could!

      1. I definitely need to visit St Benet-at-Holm! I also must read CJ Sansom. Mum lent me some audio books of some of his stories a couple of years ago and I loved them.

  3. Hi Mike, East Anglia is so interesting, isn’t it? Such incredibly flat countryside seems to make for a very large-seeming sky. I love your photo of the sailboat. This abbey looks quite lonely, but what an interesting place. I agree with you about their power and wealth, but they also did a lot of good, too, it seems. You are lucky (and I know you realize that) to have so much wonderful history all around you.

    Thanks for sharing this, Mike. I hope you have a great week!

    Hugs,

    Denise

  4. Hi Mike – well done to your friends Marilyn and David … what an interesting place … that sailing boat must be of a special design – methinks? My guess is – if the archaeologists start investigating they’ll hit water and a lot of … but lots survives in muddy water – so perhaps many an interesting personage will appear. Loved the look and talk of the Abbey, its location et al … thank you – great addition to your site. Take care and good to see you … Hilary

  5. I would think that an archeological dig would find the remains of Brother Cadfael. Your bovine friends were probably chomping on the grass of a potter’s field. I am guessing.

  6. Sailed past it many a time, or , to be more accurate, tacked past it for what seemed like hours if the wind was against us, firstly with the LSE sailing club and later as a resident of Norfolk.
    We felt we could have done with the assistance of one of the place’s ghosts, a monk who used to row across the river in a boat, accompaned by a dog. He coukld at least have given us a tow…
    I did not go to the August services when living in Norfolk, down to a deep dislike of the then bishop, pompous hypocritical prat that he was…and a teetotaller, to boot. Which I wish I had had the opportunity of doing.
    Amazing what memories your posts can bring back…

  7. artandarchitecturemainly

    I too am amazed that the abbey survived the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and even more that it was the only religious house in England to do so.

    And I wonder why the Bishop of Norwich was happy to become the abbot and the owner of the abbey’s properties, in return for those of his bishopric. Surely Reppes would have been better off, and safer. with the bishopric of an important city.

    1. What a wonderful post. I went to Google maps to get a better sense of the entire Norfolk Broads region and found myself crying. That has never happened while reading one of your posts — maybe some twist or turn in my DNA remembers/recognises this part of the world? Your use of language is part of the delight I experience while reading your posts. For example: “The once great fortified abbey of St Benet-at-Holm is an ideal place to visit for those that can cope with a brief absence of facilities, including kitsch gift-shop and heaving canteen. There is also a serene lack of feral children.” Thank you for a beautiful armchair visit to a very special part of Britain.

      1. Hi Will – thank you – but sorry if the article was a catalyst for unwelcome emotion! Obviously, we Brits aren’t supposed to do that kind of thing! 🙂 Joking aside, I seem to remember that some early settlers in the New World did come from East Anglia – so maybe you had an ancestor or two there?!

  8. I’ve never been to investigate, though I saw it several times when on boating holidays with the disabled youngsters I used to look after. I had enough on my hands with making sure that no one fell in the water – including me! I’d like to know just how thoroughly the abolition of the monasteries did take place; at Denny Abbey, just north of Cambridge, nuns were recorded as being in residence for some time after the dissolution. Like you, I’ve always wanted to visit in winter but, so far, have never made it.

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