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Site of St Mary's Abbey

A Scheduled Monument in West Dereham, Norfolk

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Latitude: 52.5769 / 52°34'36"N

Longitude: 0.4509 / 0°27'3"E

OS Eastings: 566174.340111

OS Northings: 300492.4073

OS Grid: TF661004

Mapcode National: GBR P78.DTG

Mapcode Global: WHJQ0.WHXC

Entry Name: Site of St Mary's Abbey

Scheduled Date: 9 February 1981

Last Amended: 9 March 2001

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1020141

English Heritage Legacy ID: 30588

County: Norfolk

Civil Parish: West Dereham

Traditional County: Norfolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Norfolk

Church of England Parish: West Dereham

Church of England Diocese: Ely


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

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

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

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.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

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.

Source: Historic England


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)

Source: Historic England

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