A Most Disorderly Abbey!

From the time of Augustine’s mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasteries and Abbeys formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. These religious communities, 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.

Monasteries, Abbeys, call them what you like, 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 acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. The County of Norfolk was no different in how it’s religious communities were organised and run.

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Model of how Langley Abbey may have looked.

Principally, two Abbeys stand out in Norfolk but only one is the subject of this blog, that of Langley Abbey. It, along with the other Norfolk Abbey of Wendling, were both communities of Premonstratensian Canons. Langley was founded on the 19th Febtruary 1195 by Roger fitz Roger of Clavering and dedicated in honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; whereas the Abbey of Wendling, Langley’s daughter house, was dedicated to St. Mary and founded about 1265 by William de Wendling, one of the king’s justices. That is by way of explaining that the Premonstratensian order was not confined to Langley; indeed, the Order spread throughout the land mass which is now Europe, crossed the English Channel and found roots throughout England. The Order was, in time, to also cross the ocean and develop in America – but that is another story.

Both Norwich Cathedral and Langley Abbey were built during the century after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and both, just as all cathedrals of William the Conquerer, were constructed using Caen stone delivered by boat from France. The site chosen to build Langley Abbey was situated on the south bank of the River Yare approximately mid-way between Lowestoft and Norwich. It was positioned on the extreme edge of a gravel terrace but stretched on to the peat of the marsh lands. It’s present day ruins occupy the same spot.

The area in which Langley Abbey sits is a strangely remote part of East Anglia, the uncompromising rivers have long dictated the landscape, and the modern roads now rushing through to Norwich do so without much regard for the villages and hamlets lost in the rolling meadows and copses beyond. Langley is on the southern side of the river Yare, opposite the sugar beet factory and although its silos and chimneys appear from time to time above the rise, Langley is a quiet place. It remains one of the small, ancient parishes created very early on in the colonisation of this island by the English.

Langley Abbey (River Yare)
The river Yare and landscape near Langley

When first built, Langley Abbey housed between fifteen and twenty canons who were known as ‘white canons’, not monks in the strict sense of that name. They made up a community of priests who lived together under a Rule, modelling themselves on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion. What they lacked in personal wealth was offset by their Abbey which was impressive. It’s position and appearance, in Caen stone and flint, would have stood out for miles around and, in all probability, was the biggest building outside of Norwich. It was an awe-inspiring landmark at the heart of a thriving medieval community and once housed some of the most important religious leaders in Norfolk. What more did it need to make a mark on the landscape and show that the land around, and probably beyond, was completely under the control of the Abbey. The idea was clearly to blow people’s minds with amazing imagery!

During its first 100 years the wealth of Langley Abbey was almost entirely derived from contributions, grants and appropriations from more than 80 Parishes in the Diocese. During this period, when times were good, the number of Canons probably increased to over 20 with the gross income of the Abbey being estimated at about £178. Along with the daily duties and religious services, the Canons also took on the role of parish priests to the surrounding villages. This was a time when Norwich, just upriver, was one of the largest and most important cities in medieval England and Langley Abbey would have held a very prestigious position.

The surviving building that exists today formed part of the west range of the Abbey and, along with other areas of the abbey, was rebuilt and redesigned during the 14th century. The surviving Cellarium, as the name suggests, was a store room for food, wine and other goods and is thought to have possibly been used as the Abbots personal cellar. A narrow, spiral stone staircase leads up to what is believed to have been to Abbots private quarters.

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The Cellarium

Very little is reported of life at Langley Abbey until 1475, when Bishop Richard Redman was appointed Commisary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England, which meant that he was responsible for the 29 larger English houses. Sadly for him, the abbey, which was to stand for over three hundred years, had a reputation for being one of the most wayward monasteries in England; it appears that disorderly conduct and corruption were rife! Apart from all the other indiscretions, there was a scandal when the presiding Abbot, who was responsible for the collection of funds for the crusades in the Norwich diocese, seemingly embezzled the £200 of taxes gathered in the the local area – claiming that he hadn’t received them.

 

Bishop Redman was charged to investigate this and all other reports of ‘wrong doing’; a task that was to occupy his mind and time for over 25 years. He made his first of many visits to Langley on 1 July, 1475 to sort things out. That was a short visit, leaving on 3 July but making sure that he dined at Beccles at the expense of Langley Abbey – perks of his position no doubt!

Langley Abbey (Drinking)2
Clerics ‘letting their down’.

The Abbey was again visited by this bishop three years later, on the same day of the month. On that occasion he met with Nicholas, Langley’s Abbot who was bowed down by age and sickness, the reason given for the Abbey’s bad discipline. The outcome to their meeting was for Prior John Bristow to receive unspecified discipline and for two of Langley’s canons to be appointed to ‘look after the spiritualities and temporalities of the house’. Thomas Russell was sentenced to forty days bread and water and banished to another house for three years ‘for evil living’. Two others were apostate for going out without leave and also sentenced to forty days of penance. The practice of locking any rooms so as to prevent the entrance of the superior was also forbidden. All recreation outside the precincts would be stopped until the next General Chapter when the Prior would attend report as to whether the new rules were being observed.

Little seemed to change after Redman departed for during his next visit to Langley on 20 August, 1482 there was again much scandal reported. John Myntynge the Abbot, John Bristow the Prior and fifteen others, including a novice and an apostate, were in attendance. The Abbot was accused of some incompetence and waste with the result that his powers were temporarily transferred to two of the canons under the Abbot of Wendling. Seemingly distressing to some was the diktat that ‘common taverns near the monastery’ were not to be visited and no one was to leave the precincts of the Abbey, save those responsible for services in churches. The injunctions did not end there for there were also a variety of minor and usual orders included.

Langley Abbey (Barn)
The Old Abbey Barn, Langley

Did all this work? Well, during his tour in the early summer of 1486, four years later, Bishop Redman, having reached Langley at supper time on 27 June, seemed pleased. Then. two years later, when Langley’s Abbot Walter Alpe, Prior John Shelton and thirteen other canons were present, Redman found matters going ‘excellently well’ – but not quite, despite being informed that the Abbey’s debt had been reduced from £200 to £100. Being the Commissary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England and maybe a person wanting his present felt further, Redman highlighted other ‘irregularities’ and left behind him further injunctions; they were banns against absence for hunting and fishing by night under pain of the greater excommunication.

Redman, it seems, must have developed a taste for maintaining discipline at Langley for he was again there In 1491 to attend the serious case of Canon Thomas Ludham who, in a quarrel, had cut off a man’s right hand; he was sentenced to forty days penance and to perpetual imprisonment. Redman made further visits in1494 and 1497, reaching Langley at supper time the 20th June. He held his meeting with the Abbot the next day, but did not leave until the 23rd, when he slept at Norwich – once more at the expense of Langley. This unusually long stay of Redman and his retinue may have been intended as a kind of punishment for the laxity he had found at Langley; on the other hand, one should not forget Redman’s track record for his acceptance of ‘hospitality’.

In the year 1500 William Curlew was elected Abbot of Langley, but was obliged to resign in 1502 for some ‘delinquencies which are not named’. On 10th December, 1502, Robert Abbot of Alnwick, as father-abbot of Langley, being too aged and infirm to ride, wrote to Richard the Bishop of Ely, giving him full authority to act in his name and to conduct an election of a new Abbot for Langley. He told the Bishop in his letter that the house of Langley was in sore financial straits, being much in debt and not having sufficient for its domestic needs or, indeed, for the spiritual benefices that it held. Robert also anticipated difficulties as to the election and authorised the Bishop to excommunicate anyone who might be rebellious. It would seem that yet a another new Abbot would solve Langley’s probelems.

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For writers, like present-day Karen Maitland, Langley’s clear reputation could and would be exploited, all in the cause of developing a good plot – as in her book THE RAVEN’S HEAD , of which we shall sample an extract:

‘A tall, gaunt man steps from behind one of the pillars into the glow of the furnace.’ (Photograph: Ashley Dace)

“There are some people who appear friendly, even charming, like the neighbour spraying his roses who cheerily calls ‘good morning’. But behind the chintz curtains he is adding that deadly pesticide to his wife’s tea, as he did for his three previous wives whose bones now fertilise those same roses. And, like people, places too can present an innocent face, while concealing a heart of malice.

Langley Abbey in Norfolk is one. If you see it in summer with the sun glinting from its ruined walls, snuggled in the tender green grass, it presents a romantic setting. It could be one of those follies the landed gentry liked to build in their magnificent gardens, where ladies sipped wine and listened to lovers reading poems or played at being shepherds and shepherdesses among the daisies.

Langley Abbey
‘The ruins stood as jagged as broken tooth … leading nowhere, save to death.’

But creep up on Langley on a winter’s evening and you will glimpse its dark soul. The ruins rise like giant gravestones in the darkness as the bone-white mist from the marshes slithers through them. The stones are so cold, so silent that every night-sound echoes from them – the rat-rustle of dried grass, the gallows-creak of the branches of a tree, the drip and gurgle of icy black water.

Was it that desolation, those nameless terrors that drove the medieval White Canons out of their abbey every night to hunt, drink or seek comfort in the arms of village women, anything to escape those great oppressive stones?

Langley Abbey (Drinking)

For centuries, Langley corrupted those who entered its walls. The Premonstratensians or Norbertines, who founded this abbey in 1195, belonged to one of the strictest religious orders. They were ordained priests who had dedicated their lives to serving the community, but had also subjected themselves to living under austere monastic rule. Yet, as each new generation arrived the muddy ooze seeped into their veins; the marsh-agues gnawed their bones, and malevolence choked their souls. Every virtuous abbot sent to reform them was instead sucked into their mire.

But what lay at the heart of Langley’s darkness? Henry VIII’s recorders unearthed financial corruption, sexual ‘incontinence’ and violence against fellow clerics. But imagine if there was something worse concealed behind those walls, something far more sinister? Don’t be deceived by Langley; don’t be taken in by its sweet, innocent face. Like any poisoner, Langley knows where the bones are buried. The question is, can we find them?

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‘the great, grim walls of the abbey. Their shadow stretches cold and dark across the track.’

 

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‘A stone from the ceiling crashed to floor, narrowly missing the bed. I stared up, expecting
to see a glimpse of sky…….’ (Photograph: Jo Liddiard)
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‘I turned to see the figure of Sylvain filling the doorway at the top of the stairs. For a moment I thought I saw two great ragged wings folding themselves against his sides.

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The 1500’s were obviously a seminal period for the Abbey and Langley Abbey’s dissolution took place in 1536, which meant that what assets it had were seized. It is understood that by the time of suppression in 1536 the numbers of the community were falling and the inventory of church goods showed nothing of value and the chattels were equally of little value. An obvious decline did not stop there; the buildings were also ruinous and in a state of decay. Twelve years later, the Abbey site was acquired by John Berney, Esq, when it was primarily seen as a quarry for stone and a reclamation yard for other materials. Reports from the time made if stark that the destruction of the Abbey was very thorough. The site and estate remained in the Berney family until the middle of the 18th Century when they passed to the Beauchamp Proctor family where they remained until the early 20th Century.

Little remains of this once magnificent and large Langley Abbey but extensive archaeological excavations in the 1920s by Elliston Erwood produced a detailed plan of how the Abbey was laid out. The fact that monastic buildings of that era generally conformed to a similar set of rules enabled the illustration below to be produced which shows how the Abbey is likely to have looked when it was first built.

Langley Abbey (Drawing)

The vaulted former Cellarium is still standing and there are remains of the church, barn and fishponds. The western range has recently been restored and now houses a full-scale model of the original monastic layout plus interpretation boards telling the fascinating story from foundation to dissolution.

But despite being a site of enormous historical and cultural importance, Langley Abbey has been shut away from the eyes of the public for hundreds of years. Now the remains of this 12th century abbey, near Loddon, has undergone restoration and is open as a fascinating Norfolk tourist attraction.

THE END

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