Abbey Ruins

In a meadow of forty acres, on the right of the road leading from North Creake to Burnham Market, a house of Austin Canons was founded in 1206, in honour of the Blessed Virgin, by Alice, widow of Sir Robert de Nerford, governor of Dover Castle.

The house had originally been founded as a hospital, during the reign of Henry II (1157-1189) by Sir Robert and Alice, his wife, for the care of the elderly and infirm, dedicated to the honour of St Bartholomew with a master, four chaplains and thirteen poor brethren.

The first master, William de Geyst, a secular priest, soon after its establishment, with the consent of Lady Alice (Sir Robert having died), became an Austin Canon and changed the foundation into a priory of that order, becoming himself the first prior of St. Mary de Pratis by Creake.  Geoffrey, Bishop of Ely, nephew of the patroness, consecrated the chapel of the priory in 1221.  A bull of Gregory IX (1227-41), ordained that the rule of St. Augustine was to be observed by the canons, and confirmed them in the possession of the great meadow round the monastery.

The site is now in the care of English Heritage and accessible to the public year round, free of charge.

Extract from “A History of the County of Norfolk” by William Page (1906) with additions by Roger Arguile.  See also Cartulary of Creake Abbey by A. L. Bedingfield (Norfolk Records Society 1966). 

For the full article by Fr. Roger Arguile please read on!

 Creake Abbey – A History

Beginnings – a hospital

In a meadow of forty acres, on the right of the road leading from North Creake to Burnham Market, a house of Austin Canons was founded in 1206, in honour of the Blessed Virgin, by Alice, widow of Sir Robert de Nerford, governor of Dover Castle.  The house had originally been founded as a hospital, during the reign of Henry II (1157-1189) by Sir Robert and Alice, his wife, as a hospital for the care of the elderly and infirm, dedicated to the honour of St. Bartholomew with a master, four chaplains, and thirteen poor brethren. The first master, William de Geyst, a secular priest, soon after its establishment, with the consent of Lady Alice (Sir Robert having died), became an Austin (Augustinian) Canon and changed the foundation into a priory of that order, becoming himself the first prior of St. Mary de Pratis by Creake. Geoffrey, bishop of Ely, nephew of the patroness, consecrated the chapel of the priory in 1221. A bull of Gregory IX (1227-41), ordained that the rule of St. Augustine was to be observed by the canons, and confirmed them in the possession of the great meadow round the monastery. Other lands granted to them were the vills of ‘Receresthorp’ and Ilveston, in Lincoln diocese; various houses, lands, mills, woods, and rents in Norwich diocese; a property in the city of London; and there were bestowed on them several privileges and immunities.

The Abbey –  In 1231, Lady Alice having granted the patronage of the priory to the king, Henry III confirmed all its privileges, and sanctioned the priory being changed into an abbey. It elevation to this status owed much to its popularity as a place to which ‘many needy folk flock the best refuge of those oppressed by great misery’. Unlike many former hospitals, it appears to have continued in its care for poor men after its elevation to the status of Abbey (though like many Augustinians houses it fell on bad times later.)

In 1239 Bishop William de Raleigh confirmed to the abbey the patronage and appropriation of the church of St. Margaret, Habeton, and a half share in the patronage of All Saints, Wreningham and in 1247 Bishop Walter of Norwich sanctioned the appropriation to the abbey of the church of St. Martin of Quarles. In 1257 a bull of Pope Alexander authorized the appropriation of the church of Gateley, which was already in the abbey’s gift. This appropriation was confirmed by the bishop of Norwich in 1259, and a vicarage formally ordained.  A deed of confirmation of the various appropriations held by the abbey, executed by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1281, which is now amongst the Christ’s College muniments, has on the back an extent of all the abbey lands, rents, and services. It is stated that there were sixteen acres within the precinct walls of the house.  In 1286 it is recorded that the abbot of Creake held four fairs at the abbey, namely at the Annunciation, the Translation of St. Thomas, and the festivals of Saints Bartholomew and Nicholas; these had been granted by Henry III in 1227.  Various grants of land are recorded including that in 1287 by William de Bodham of the local manor which came to be known by his and then the Abbey’s name. The taxation returns of 1291 gave the annual value of the temporalities of the abbey in Norwich diocese as £39 6s. 0¼d., and in Lincoln diocese as £20 11s. 1d; and this exclusive of the great tithes of their several appropriated churches.   Like many houses Creake was obliged to take on retainers of the king who had become incapacitated by age thus reducing their capacity to take on local infirm folk. Thus Richard Roulf, who had long served the king, and was incapacitated by age, was sent to the abbey of Creake in 1325 to receive the same maintenance that had been assigned to Adam de Waltham, deceased, at the request of the late king.

Another major function was that of saying masses for the dead in response to bequests. Thus in 1331 the abbey received a grant from James de North Creake, chaplain, and William Quarles of a property and forty acres of land in South Creake and North Creake, to maintain a chaplain to celebrate daily mass in the abbey for the faithful departed. In the following year William Quarles, in conjunction with Laurence Hemming and Walter de Melford, granted the abbey further lands for a daily mass for their three souls.  Land was also held by the abbey in Gedney, Lincolnshire, by the service of finding a canon to celebrate daily in the chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr, on the site of a property formerly belonging to Thomas Dory, and supporting there five paupers, giving them daily a loaf of fifty shillings’ weight, broth, and beer, and a portion of either meat or fish, and a cloth tunic every other year. This service Margaret, widow of John de Roos, alleged in 1341, had been discontinued for two years or more by the abbot.

The accounts for the year of Abbot Brandon’s death (1360) show that the deceased abbot’s copes were converted into money; his quire cope (capa chore) realized 3s. 4d. The extant accounts for different years of this century prove that the revenues of this comparatively small house varied from £130 to £140, of which about £90 were derived from rents of lands and houses, and the residue from the sale of corn and stock from their own demesnes, from the four quarterly fairs, and from occasional legacies and gifts. The accounts very rarely denote anything that could be termed luxurious living. One shilling was spent on wine and three pence on apples in 1360, but even this was on the occasion of the abbot’s funeral, and was probably for guests. Occasionally they accepted presents in kind, but there always seems to have been some return. In 1345-6 twopence and a pair of gloves were given to one bringing capons and mallards to the convent from Congham, and two knives, value 1½d., were given to two girls who brought apples to the abbot.

The Fire –  A sad disaster occurred at the beginning of the year 1484, when a great part of the monastery was ‘petuously burnt.’ It was beyond the power of the convent to re-edify, and there was danger of the house falling into extreme desolation, and of divine service being withdrawn, or much diminished, unless charitable remedy for their relief could be devised. The abbot appealed to the king as patron of the house, and Richard III, by letters dated 20th. February, ‘moved with pite,’ gave the abbey by way of alms towards the rebuilding the handsome sum of £40 13s. 4d., to be paid out of the revenues of the lordship of Fakenham, one half at Easter and the remainder at Michaelmas.  Robert Walsingham was appointed in 1491, and whilst he was abbot extensive rebuilding of the quire and presbytery of the conventual church were in progress or envisaged. Sir William Calthorp, of Burnham Thorpe, many of whose ancestors were buried in a chapel of the conventual church, by will dated 31st. May, 1495, left £74 towards the building of the quire and presbytery and general repairs of Creake Abbey.  Giles Shevington, the last abbot of the house, was elected in 1503. He is mentioned in that year in the will of Walter Aslake, who gave to the convent all the lands in Holm and Ringstead that he purchased of Sir Roger Strange, on condition of prayers being said for his soul. Walter also left 5s. to each canon, and to the abbey a complete vestment of white damask, and willed that “the north side of the quire in the said abbey be made with tymber workmanship and nayles of my goods, and mete and drink, and sand and lime, at the cost of the abbot and convent”.

Disease and demise –  Not long after this date ‘an infectious or epidemical disease’ carried off the several canons of this small house, Abbot Giles being the last survivor. The abbot himself died on 12th. December, 1506; there was no convent left to elect a successor. The house was, therefore, ipso facto dissolved, and reverted to the crown. Through the intervention of the king’s mother, the Lady Margaret, countess of Richmond, the lands and revenues of the abbey were settled upon Christ’s College, Cambridge, which was of her foundation.  The abbey thus escaped the Reformation, unlike its sister house at Walsingham. Augustinian houses were not noted for their piety or zeal but all were dissolved following the Valor Ecclesisasticus, a governmental visitation ostensibly to assess the health of monasteries but intended to determine their value.

 The abbey buildings –  The Abbey buildings were used as a quarry in an area devoid of free stone. Eventually, the church was adapted as a farm and the east range of the cloister, including the chapter house, was converted to a house.  What survive are the remains of the abbey church – the presbytery, crossing, north transept and parts of the north and south chapels – while the nave survives only in the form of low walls and foundations.  The chapels each have a piscina, where the priest washed the sacred vessels, and the arched recess in the north chapel probably once housed a tomb. The smaller, inner chapel has an aumbry, or cupboard. During the excavation of this part of the church, considerable areas of external plasterwork were found on the northern and eastern walls of the chapel.
The hardships of the 15th century reduced the abbey church to the size of a chapel. The nave walls were taken down, probably to the same level as today, and the south arches to the crossing and transepts were blocked to create a new west wall. The eastern processional doorway from the cloister was blocked, and the western door was reset to face north into what had become an open space.
The majority of the north transept was sacrificed and, as it was now outside the roofed area of the church, the original doorway to the spiral stair in its north-eastern corner was blocked. You can see where a new doorway was forced into the stairs from the chapel to the east. The south-facing 15th-century window in the south chapel overlooks the site of the south transept, suggesting that it too probably ceased to be roofed at this time.

The site is now in the care of English Heritage, and freely accessible to the public.

© Roger Arguile 2012 from A History of the County of Norfolk by William Page (VCH 1906) and the Cartulary of Creake Abbey by A.L. Bedingfield (Noroflk Records Society 1966) with additions.