Langley Dyke is a lovely, secluded spot and we were lucky enough to be able to grab a lunchtime mooring at the staithe a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, the pub is no more, but we decided to take a walk up the road to have a look at the remains of Langley Abbey which is now home to the Norfolk Polo Club.
Little remains of this once magnificent and large 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 on the right to be produced which shows how the abbey is likely to have looked when it was first built. The abbey was founded in 1195 by then then Lord of Langley, Sir Robert Fitzroger, as a Premonstratensian monastery and was run by white-robed canons rather than monks, presided over by the Abbot. 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 monastic orders were often hugely wealthy and powerful, owning vast amounts of land, estates and manors in the surrounding area and elsewhere in the country.
The surviving building formed part of the west range and this, along with other areas of the abbey, was rebuilt and redesigned during the 14th century. Parts of this range now provide a venue for weddings but heading further in brings you to the atmospherically lit cellarium with it’s magnificent, vaulted ceiling (as photographed on the left). As the name suggests, this area 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. Here, a series of information boards tell of the abbey’s history and a little about monastic life during the medieval period through words, photographs and illustrations. Looking out of the window up here gives you a view across the few ruins which remain of the rest on the abbey (photographed below) – sadly you can’t actually get to go and explore these, but for the sake of preservation I guess it’s understandable that they would like to keep people off!
The abbey stood for over three hundred years but during it’s lifetime gained a reputation for being one of the most wayward monasteries in England. In the early 14th century 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. Matters did not improve as by the latter half of the 15th century it appears that disorderly conduct and corruption were rife! The information boards at the abbey list a catalogue of misdemeanors which were recorded by Bishop Richard Redmond over 25 years of visiting Langley in his role as commissary-general of the Premonstratensian order. It all sounds rather like an episode of Father Ted!
In 1478 Canon Thomas Russell was sentenced to 40 days penance and was banished to Tichfield for 3 years for “evil living“.
In 1482 the Abbot, John Myntynge, was reported as being guilty of “incontinence and waste” (squandering resources on his own lifestyle basically). It was also noted that “Common taverns near the monastery were not to be visited“.
In 1488 the new Abbot, Walter Alpe, was commended but the Bishop recorded that vows of silence were being ignored and that “there should be no hunting or fishing at night and no illicit desertion“.
In 1491 Walter Alpe was charged with being “wanting in self-restraint and with dilapidation“. An incident in which the deacon at Langley, Thomas Ludham, had cut off the hand of a Carmelite friar during a brawl was also noted!
In 1497 the Bishop spent three days in Norwich and heard that the whole house had become the scandal of the neighbourhood. Charges of incontinence were levelled against the Abbot and others, with cases of abandonment of vows and conspiracy against the Abbot also being recorded.
In 1500 two charges were made against the Abbot – the first was found to be untrue whilst the second was “not proven“. Clues to the nature of this second charge can be found in the warning the Abbot was given, that he should “not be seen in association with the woman who had been named”. Walter Alpe resigned a short while afterwards.
The fortunes and prosperity of Langley Abbey declined over the years and by the time of its dissolution in 1536 just six canons remained, and only one of those wished to continue with his vows! It is thought that much of the abbey was demolished soon afterwards, the building materials being used elsewhere in the local area. The section of the west range that remains today was converted for use as a grain processing works in the 1820s and much of the interior vaulting was removed at this time. This building has now been restored and, as previously mentioned, provides an interesting venue for wedding receptions and other functions.
Langley Abbey is free to visit and is open from 10.00am to 4.00pm every day except Monday. Light lunches, tea, coffee and cakes are available from the Courtyard Coffee Shop.