April 19, 2011

Norfolk. The Monastery.

A minute's walk from the front door of the house, are the ruins of Binham Priory.

It is approached via the remains of the ancient gate-house, here is a photo I took one evening last weekend, looking back over my shoulder at gate-house which was looking atmospheric in the low, slanting evening light.

The West facade of the Priory showing the front door and round window of the Church building, still the parish church for the village as it always was, but only a third of its length remains.

Binham Priory was founded as a cell of St Albans Abbey in 1091 by Peter de Valoines a nephew of William the Conqueror. It was endowed in the reign of Henry 1, in 1104, although the building was not finished until the middle of the thirteenth century. It is astounding that this place is over 900 years old and yet so much is known about its history. The list of Priors goes back to Osgod in 1106, and many seemed to live fairly unscrupulous lives! About 12 deaths of monks from the Priory are recorded between 1216-53, including one Alexander de Langley, who became insane through overstudy and was flogged and kept in solitary confinement in chains until his death. He was buried in his chains, which seems a final uncharitable act of his Brethren to me, although perhaps the telescoping of centuries and sensibilities simplifies my viewpoint. In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior. He spent vast sums of money in the pursuit of alchemy, selling chalices, chasubles, gold rings, silk, silver cups and spoons and even the silver cup and crown in which the Host (communion bread) was suspended before the altar. These stories are the tip of the iceberg!

When Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, this Priory was hit with the full force of his soldiers' might. What remains today bears silent testimony to the ruthlessness of that King's rapacious desperation for power.

Restoration work during the last two hundred years brought the site back from the brink of total ruin, and     there is so much still there that illuminates the history and reality of Medieval monastic life. The layout of the rooms is clear to see, and labelled so we can all imagine the monks in their refectory, or dormitories or warming themselves on the stone seats either side of the big fireplaces in the Warming Room. There must have been waiting lists for turns on those seats in the perishing Norfolk winters!

The High Altar, under the open skies as it is now, looks as removed from today's safe, indoor English Anglicanism, as it possible to imagine.

Beyond the Priory walls are today's water meadows where cattle graze, then they were the fish ponds, providing, I suppose the Friday fish suppers for the monks.

The agricultural life of monks is well documented, and I love the way the ancient barns of the local farm are butted right up to the Priory walls. The ancient barns, with their steep angled roofs, are so beautiful I think.

The ruins were of course the most perfect place for hide and seek games when we were children and our kids have loved playing there too. We are still playing hide and seek amongst the ruins with our youngest two, I am good for a couple of rounds, but then tend to get distracted by something and am allowed to wander off. Richard, on the other hand, will play on and on, for as long as they want to squeeze themselves into stony nook and crannies to be discovered with much shrieking and laughter - it usually involves lots of running around and finally collapsing in exhaustion and giggles! He is a top dad.

The inside of the church is pared back and simple, but very evocative of its history. Bear in mind though,  that the walls would have been brightly painted, even gaudy to our eyes. (There seemed to be loads of spotlights in the church last weekend, I think there had been a classical music concert there.)

The top row of arches is actually a gallery, and with a squint and a bit of imagination, it is easy to look up and visualise the rows of monks in their Benedictine habits, chanting their psalms. I know, hairs on the back of the neck stuff! Just at the foot of one side of what is now the outside of the Church is this little door, and I think it would have opened up to a narrow spiral staircase which would have provided access to the high galleries.

The pews, used regularly for services still, were carved in the sixteenth century.

Various extraordinarily old artifacts have been put on display, here is a monk's stylus, did he lose it one day, I wonder?

There are the remains of the former ancient Rood Screen, on which post-Reformation black-letter texts from the Tyndale and Coverdale translations of the Bible were written over the earlier Catholic saints, who spookily are now reappearing as the dusty layers of later paint are flaking!

This place is the most breathtaking crucible of history and religion and certainly its old flint walls have witnessed the ravages of passion, politics and unspeakable violence as well as a millenium of sacred belief and piety. I hope you enjoyed seeing a glimpse of it in all its rugged, broken glory.


  1. oh my goodness. this is just a minute's walk from your home? what beauty and history within a short walk. i thought my park was lovely but this is just astounding. lucky, lucky you.


  2. Amazing images and such beautiful stonework...It's amazing that these buildings were accomplished before heavy machinery!

  3. So cool to live in the middle of all that OLD history. Here we think 400 years is a lot!

  4. You've taken some beautiful photographs. Thanks for sharing your homeland with us. It was so

  5. Your photos are absolutely stunning. I love old churches - and the wealth of history behind them. You are so lucky to be near such a breathtakingly beautiful place.

    X Sue

  6. what an interesting post. Lovely photos too. Really special to live within a stone's throw of it and to play amongst the ruins - bliss!
    Katie x

  7. There is something about ruins that I very much. What a special place & story. Thank you for sharing.

    A very sweet photo of your husband & son.

    Lieve groet & een gezellige avond,

    Madelief x

  8. I live in Norfolk and have never been there! Will maybe visit on one of these long weekends coming up. I loved your thoughts on blogging one year on. Am approaching my first blog birthday and beginning to think about my blog's direction, too. Yours is really varied and interesting.

  9. Janet,it is a minute from my childhood home, which my parents still own and live part of the year in. We stay there as often as we can, it is an amazing link between my childhood and my kids'.

    Hostess, I know, I can't imagine how they built such high structures.

    Webb, this is insanely old, even for the Old Country!

    Katie, sometimes I wish we lived there all year. And then I remember January and February!

    Susan, thank you so much. Lucky indeed.

    Madelief, thank you so much, I loved sharing the place with you all!

    Potterjotter, thank you for your kind words - Binham Priory is def worth a visit, but you are spoilt for choice in Nelson's County!

    S and Z, pleasure!

  10. Lovely to see these sacred images the day before Easter; I just happened on your blog. Many blessings to you and yours, from Maine. Ann

  11. ...and its haunted too!!!