There has been a church on this site for well over 1000 years. In Saxon times, Wymondham probably had a Minster church serving the town and surrounding communities. After the 1066 Norman Conquest, the land passed to the d’Aubigny family from Normandy. In 1107, William d’Aubigny founded a Benedictine monastery here as a ‘daughter house’ of the great St Alban’s Abbey.
The church was a grand stone structure used by the small community of monks and also by the parishioners of the town. This arrangement caused frequent disputes, and in 1249 the Pope ruled that the church should be clearly divided. The eastern half was to be used by the monks, the western half became the town’s parish church.
Over the centuries, the church saw many changes. New towers were built, the nave was raised with a magnificent angel roof, and the parish church was enlarged with a wide north aisle in Gothic style. In 1448, the priory became an independent abbey, one of the richest in Norfolk. But when King Henry VIII became head of the English church, he closed all monasteries in the land. In 1538, the Wymondham monks surrendered to the king. Their part of the church was taken down, and today only the parish church survives. Significant changes since then include the enlarging of the south aisle in the 1540s, the installation of the great organ in 1793 and the addition of Sir Ninian Comper’s gilded altar screen as a First World War memorial. In 2015, splendid new rooms were added at the east end to house new displays and facilities.
Wymondham Abbey was a Benedictine monastery. William d’Aubigny founded it in 1107 as a Priory (daughter house) of St.Alban’s Abbey where a close relative was Abbot. There were frequent disputes between the monks of Wymondham and St Alban’s, and in 1447 the King and Pope agreed that Wymondham should become independent, known as Wymondham Abbey.
The monastery was never large and usually held just 12 to 16 monks, plus lay brothers (who did manual work), novices (monks in training) and servants who worked in the kitchens and on the land. The monks followed the Rule of St Benedict, which said that they must live a simple life of worship, work and prayer.
Medieval people believed that when they died their souls were punished for their sins in Purgatory before being allowed into heaven. But if they did good works, and people prayed for them, they could get to heaven more quickly. William d’Aubigny was a rich and powerful landowner who worked for the king. Eventually he became Pincerna (butler) to King Henry I, which was like being a minister in the royal government.
Founding a monastery was a ‘good work’ for God, and William hoped that he, his family and descendants would benefit for ever from the prayers and masses of the monks. So he granted his new monastery lands and estates which provided a generous income to support them. He also built a splendid church where the monks spent up to eight hours a day in prayer and worship, known as Opus Dei (the work of God). Their main work at other times was copying manuscripts, managing the monastery’s estates, and looking after guests and the poor.
William d’Aubigny also wished to provide for the people of Wymondham. He decided that his new church should also serve as a Parish Church for the townspeople. So, once the east end of the church was finished for the monks, a long nave was built for the parishioners and their old Saxon church was knocked down.
During the 1530s, the marital problems of King Henry VIII caused a dispute between the King and the Pope (the head of the Roman Catholic Church). Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce a male heir, so he asked the Pope for a divorce. The Pope refused. Henry retaliated in 1534 by declaring himself ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’. Most churchmen supported the king, and they readily granted the divorce.
In 1536, King Henry realised that, as head of the church, he could also control the monasteries. There were about 800 monasteries in England at that time and they owned about a third of all the land in the country. Henry saw that he could make himself rich by closing monasteries and seizing their wealth. He sent round Commissioners to visit the monasteries. They claimed that they found many monasteries (including Wymondham) were badly run and that the monks were living easy and sometimes immoral lives.
In 1536, King Henry VIII ordered the closure of all the smaller monasteries with annual incomes of less than £200 (about £200,000 in today’s terms). Wymondham escaped, as its income was just above this level. But Henry later continued the process to include the richer monasteries, and in 1538 the Abbot and monks of Wymondham ‘freely’ surrendered their buildings and estates to the King. The roofs were quickly removed from the monks’ part of the church, which was gradually demolished so that its stone could be re-used elsewhere. But the Parish Church – i.e. the western half of the building – survived. This is the building you see today.
Wymondham Abbey is one of Norfolk’s oldest and greatest historic architectural treasures. Its tall twin towers are a landmark for miles around. The setting of the church is incomparable with its spacious churchyard separated from the adjacent grazing meadow by an ingenious ha-ha. Inside, the great Norman pillars of the parish nave date from the 1150s. In the mid-1400s, the roof height was raised and crowned by a magnificent roof supported by life-size angel carvings, one of the finest examples in the country. The wide north aisle, with the Lady Chapel at its east end, is in Gothic style with hammerbeam roof and intriguingly carved corbels of angels, musicians and local characters of the day.
Important features of the church include the 14th century font with tall pierced cover, the fine 1793 Georgian organ in Chippendale-style case, the gilded altar screen (reredos) designed by Sir Ninian Comper, and the Arts and Crafts triptych in the Lady Chapel. The beautiful new rooms at the east end contain displays of artefacts and documents from the parish archives dating back to medieval times.