About Wymondham Abbey

The Founding of Wymondham Abbey

Wymondham Priory - it was raised to the status of an Abbey a mere ninety years before its suppression - was founded in 1107 as a community of Benedictine monks. The founder was William D'Aubigny, sometimes referred to as d'Albini, Chief Butler to King Henry I whose widow, Alice of Louvrain, was later to marry William's son. William was the nephew of Richard d'Aubigny, Abbot of St Alban's, and the new community was made a Priory, or dependency, of the great Abbey of St Alban's, and was dedicated in honour of St Mary the Virgin and St Alban the Martyr. It was only later that the co-patron was changed to St Thomas of Canterbury.

The building was on an ambitious scale. Stone was shipped across the English Channel from Caen, in Normandy, and the original Nave - a scaled-down version of the Nave of Norwich Cathedral - was twelve bays long. The Priory Church was cruciform, with a central Tower and two low Towers at the western end; it had Aisles and Transepts, and the monastic Quire was flanked by chapels. The monastic buildings - of which very little remains above ground, with the exception of the east wall of the Chapter House - lay on the south side of the church. The buildings seem to have been substantially completed by 1130, when Nigel was appointed the first Prior.

Monastic and Secular: disputes arise

An unusual feature of the foundation, and one which was almost bound to lead to dispute, was d'Aubigny's intention that the church should be used by the Benedictine community and also by the townspeople as their Parish Church. This was clearly asserted, but no directions were given as to who should have jurisdiction in which parts of the church. It was hardly surprising that in time the Priory should wish to assert its authority over the whole building, and that the townspeople should resist. Matters came to a head in 1249 when the case was referred to the Pope, Innocent IV. He ruled that the parishioners should have use, and control, of the Nave, north Aisle, and north-west Tower (the parts of the church lying away from the monastic buildings) and that the Priory should have the Quire and eastern Chapels, the Transepts, the south Aisle and the south-west Tower.

The two towers

It seems that by the middle of the fourteenth century the Norman Central Tower was showing signs of weakness; it was demolished, and by 1376 the present Central Tower was under construction. It was finished in 1409. Possibly because of the weakness of the original foundations this new Central Tower was built to the west of the original, and occupies most of what had been the three easternmost bays of the Norman Nave. But when the tower was built, its west wall, instead of being pierced by a lofty arch was made completely solid, apart from two small doorways flanking the Parish Altar, thereby making a rigid division between the monastic and parochial sections of the church. Further, whilst the central Tower was under construction, the monks had moved their bells to the north-west Tower (ceded to the Parish in 1249) and then, following the return of the bells to the new Tower, the monks walled up the entrance to the other. In retaliation the townspeople unblocked the entrance, hanging three bells of their own in the north-west Tower. They filled in the two doors in the new wall behind their main Altar, thereby excluding the monks from the Nave and finally they broke into the Prior's lodging and took possession of it, threatening his life and preventing him from saying Mass for Epiphany.

The Archbishop of Canterbury intervenes

These events caused the King, Henry IV, to request the Archbishop of Canterbury to enquire into the dispute, and coming to Wymondham in 1411 he reaffirmed the division of the building which Innocent IV had decreed in 1249. He gave the towns people leave to hang bells in the north-west Tower, but ordered them not to ring them at such time as would cause annoyance to the Priory. Soon after this, 3000 inhabitants petitioned the King for permission to build a new and higher Tower, so that the bells could be heard more clearly. They wished to build this new Tower immediately to the west of the Nave, where a Galilee porch stood, but due to a further dispute with the Priory over removal of the Porch, nothing was done for the time being.

The Priory grows

Then towards the middle of the fifteenth century Sir John Clifton, of Buckenham Castle, acquired a large part of the Manor of Wymondham, and became prominent in local affairs. He took up the West Tower project with enthusiasm, interesting wealthy patrons in it, and in 1445 obtained the agreement of the Priory. The work finally began, and the two low Norman Towers were dismantled. Other works followed in this second great building phase; the new clerestory and hammer-beam roof were added to the Nave; the north Aisle was re-roofed and the two-storey north Porch was added.

Royal suppression and local rebellion

Meanwhile in 1448 the monastic house had become an Abbey, independent of St Alban's. Sir Andrew Agard, a direct descendant of the Founder, had petitioned the King for this to take place. The Prior, Stephen London, formerly a monk of St Alban's, was duly elected as first Abbot. He was the first of ten Abbots of Wymondham, and it was during the Abbacy of the tenth, Elisha Ferrers, that the Abbey, along with all the other religious houses in England, was closed down by order of King Henry VIII. Somewhat unusually, the King retained ownership for ten years after the suppression using one John Flowerdew as his Agent. Under him much was destroyed, including parts of the church which the townspeople had raised money to purchase from the Crown and retain. Flowerdew's high-handedness and self-interest contributed to the Kett Rebellion of 1549, a local uprising against the religious and social changes which were being imposed upon the country. It was led by Robert Kett, a wealthy tradesman of Wymondham, who was hanged at Norwich Castle. His brother William was hanged from the west Tower of the Abbey.

After the Dissolution

The closure of the monastery in 1538 was an economic disaster for the town.  But initially, the religious life of the parishoners changed little.  The former monastic buildings and the eastern half of the church were gradually pulled down and their stones sold off for re-use elsewhere.  Engraved illustrations show substantial sections of masonry still standing as late as the mid-1700s.  In 1573, when Queen Elizabeth I visited the town, the sanctuary of the church was in poor repair.  The queen gave money for its partial reconstruction, and its rounded Norman pillars were squared off in Renaissance style.  Wardens' accounts suggest that a similar treatment was given to the main nave arches in the 1580s.  Elaborate Latin church services had by now been replaced by the simpler forms of the English Book of Common Prayer, though records show that embroidered vestments were retained well into the Elizabethan period.  The influence of Protestant beliefs lad to the removal of statues, wall paintings, stained glass and other adornments.  To some, the church interior must have seemed a pale shadow of its former self.

The Early Modern Period

Wymondham was a large and relatively populous parish, but not a rich one.  The Great Fire, started by arsonists in 1615, destroyed much of the town, including the vicarage.  The church building escaped the blaze, along with the townspeople who were attending their Sunday service when the town was set alight.  Surviving plans for re-seating the church in the 18th and early 19th centuries show that over 1000 people could be accommodated within its walls.  Ranks of box pews faced inward from both aisles and in 1717 a substantial raised wooden gallery was added at the west end.  A tall pulpit, the focus of most church services, stood at the entrance to the chancel and largely obscured the view of the altar.  Perhaps surprisingly, there was little or no music in church at this time, until the present organ was donated and set up on the gallery in 1792.  Externally at least, the long incumbency of Revd William Papillon from 1788 to 1836 brought improvements.  Papillon bought back the ruined east tower, re-routed the roadway to the north in order to enlarge the churchyard, built the schoolroom in the churchyard, and endowed it with the income derived from the meadow.  The abbey's rural setting adjacent to unspoilt meadowland is the product of Papillon's generosity and vision.

The Great Restoration

By the late 19th century, Wymondham Abbey was in a poor state of repair.  Photographs show a gaping crack in the west tower, while internally the furnishings were somewhat dilapidated and old-fashioned.  On the appointment of a new and well-connected vicar, the Hon. Archibald Parker, a major restoration scheme was put in hand in 1902.  Parker found a benefactor in Mrs Clara Willet, a well-to-do widow whose father had been vicar fifty years previously.  She paid some £14,000 out of a total cost of £25,000.  In accordance with the Catholic traditions of Anglicanism, the church was now refurnished to draw the eye towards the new choir stalls and raised altar in the chancel.  The great east wall remained plain until 1922, when work started on the Abbey's greatest adornment of modern times - the great gilded altar screen.  This was designed by Sir Ninian Comper as a memorial to Wymondham people who lost their lives in the Great War.

Wymondham Abbey and the wider Church today

Wymondham Abbey is part of the Diocese of Norwich, one of 44 diocese which form the geographical structure of the Church of England. It is one of the oldest dating back to Dunwich (AD630), Elmham (AD673) and Thetford (AD1070). It was founded as the Diocese of Norwich in 1094 and covers 1,804 square miles with a population of approximately 815,000.

The Diocese comprises all Norfolk (the fourth largest county in England) except for an area in the extreme west beyond the Great Ouse and marshland, which is in the Diocese of Ely. A small area of Suffolk, known as Waveney, is also in the Diocese of Norwich, namely the port of Lowestoft and the associated Deanery of Lothingland. There are 26,410 people on the electoral rolls of the 577 Church of England parishes, with 209 benefices and 648 church buildings.

To visit the Diocese of Norwich Website, click here.

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