Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk

posted in: East Anglia, Home, Norfolk | 1

We were finally on our way for a week’s break, and decided to have a coffee break in Wymondham after visiting Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk. What an extraordinary site! I am used to seeing buildings like this on the Continent, but Wymondham Abbey, with its two towers, surprised me. The town was prosperous during the Middle Ages, with wealth built on the wool trade.1

Wymondham town centre with the Market Cross of 1617-18

Wymondham Abbey was founded as a Benedictine Abbey in 1107 by William d’Aubigny who was a wealthy landowner in Norfolk, and close to King Henry I.2 The Abbey was built about the same time as Binham Abbey, and the Abbey at Castle Acre, both sites on my list for the week.

The Monastery was a dependency of the Abbey at St Albans, where William d’Aubigny’s uncle was the Abbot. These were powerful and influential people who were also very wealthy. He shipped stone over from Caen to face the building. And the Founder’s son, also William d’Aubigny, became the first Earl of Arundel. The Abbey was small in the beginning, with only twelve monks, but in 1448 it became an independent Abbey in its own right. Independence was short-lived. In 1538 the Monastery was dissolved and the Crown took control of the religion.

The path to the Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury from the town
Information Board at the Abbey showing the original layout of the site

St Benedict laid down the rules for the Benedictines in Italy in the 6th century. They are the black monks, so-called because of the colour of their habits. St Augustine, who founded the Abbey at Canterbury, was a Benedictine and the Benedictine way of life was widespread throughout England. This was a way of life rather than an ‘order’ with a mother house; each Abbey was independent, presided over by an Abbot. 3

Inside Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk

The parish church with two towers is spectacularly tall, and beautifully kept. There were two churches originally because the founder had insisted that there was provision for the parish. The parish church remains but the adjoining monks’ church has been in ruins since the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Nave with two levels of clerestory windows

The rood hangs above then high altar today, but originally this would have stood above the rood screen. In the Reformation and the split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, supporters of the Reformation destroyed the rood screen. The reredos behind the high altar, bristling with ‘Papist’ symbols, is 20th century.

Reredos and Rood
Detail from the reredos by Sir Ninian Comper, 1920s-30s

At the opposite end of the church the organ of 1793 by James Davis of London 5

The font is Mediaeval, but the gilded font cover is contemporary. Both stand at one of the side aisle on the north side of the Abbey, under a hammer beam roof decorated with carved figures. In the distance is the Triptych of 1933 which originally stood in St Peter’s Church in Lowestoft.

Tryptych from St Peter’s in Lowestoft

The Angel Roof in the Abbey

In the 1400s there was enough money to raise the Nave. The work created the Upper Clerestory windows and the Angel Roof. Michael Rimmer6 established the link between the first Angel Roof built in Westminster Hall for Richard II and the multitude of these roofs in East Anglia. Hugh Herland built the Westminster roof and then worked in Great Yarmouth to build a new harbour from 1398 at a time of great wealth in East Anglia. Rimmer suggests that his contacts through the work were the powerful men building or endowing religious institutions. The angels were once painted, but that has gone; we are lucky the carvings have survived.

The Angel Roof from the nave

Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk is a most remarkable and beautiful site and is a must-visit if you are in this area, at any time of the year. Just check the website for opening times.7

The two towers through the arch of the ruined infirmary


  1. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Wool-Trade/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_d%27Aubigny_(Brito)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedictines
  4. https://www.jstor.org/stable/956878%5Befn/note%5D whose business continued to become Jardine Organs.4https://www.organbuilders.co.uk/history
  5. https://www.angelroofs.net/map
  6. http://www.wymondhamabbey.co.uk

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