The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross at Binham lies in a quiet corner of the North Norfolk landscape. It is one of Norfolk’s finest monastic sites. A Benedictine monastery was founded here soon after the Norman Conquest by Pierre de Valognes and his wife. The Priory dominated Binham and the surrounding area until it was suppressed in 1539 at Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries. The nave of the Priory has been the parish church of Binham since medieval times, and it remains so. Although damaged in many ways, it is still a very beautiful and important building of the 12th and 13th centuries. The ruins of the monastic complex survive well, and this is an extremely interesting site to visit.
Since 1933 the Norfolk Archaeological Trust has owned a large part of the ruined areas of the monastic precinct, including the eastern part of the monastery church and the cloister and surrounding buildings. More recently, the Trust has also bought and conserved the great western gatehouse to the monastery. The cloisters and surrounding buildings are now in the guardianship of English Heritage. In recent years, the Trust has worked in partnership with English Heritage, Binham PCC and the Heritage Lottery Fund to improve facilities for visitors and to provide site interpretation.
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Access and facilities
Binham lies 15km north-east of Fakenham and 9km south-west of Wells-next-the-Sea (Ordnance Survey Explorer map 251). The area of the monastic precinct owned by the Trust is open to visitors at any reasonable time. The present-day Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross also welcomes visitors every day during daylight hours.
- by road: Binham can easily be reached via many minor roads from the main A148 (Fakenham-Holt) and A149 (Wells-Sheringham) roads, as well as from Great Walsingham. SatNav: NR21 0DG. Binham Priory completely dominates the northern part of the village, and cannot be missed by visitors! Car access is via the gatehouse on the west side of the Warham Road. There is ample visitor parking outside the west end of the church.
- by bus: Binham is served by service 46 (Sanders Coaches) linking Holt with Wells-next-the-Sea. The bus stop is in the centre of the village. Unfortunately this service is limited, especially at weekends. For up to date timetable information, please visit www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk.
The church is now accessible to disabled visitors. There are public toilets, and guidebooks, cards and other merchandise for sale. A series of interpretation panels explains the church interior. People are free to walk in the ruins, which may be accessed by wheelchair users via a path near the west end of the church. Interpretation panels in this area have been provided by English Heritage.
Refreshments are available in the village at the Chequers Inn, close to the Priory, which serves food and also ale brewed onsite! There is a convenience store, Howell’s Superstore, in the village centre.
More information about Binham Priory
We do not know when Pierre and Albreda de Valognes founded the Priory but it was probably early in the Norman period, perhaps in the 1090s. De Valognes was a Norman aristocrat who was given estates at Binham and in the surrounding area. The first known prior, Osgod, is named in a document of 1106. Like Norwich Cathedral Priory, Binham was a Benedictine house. Benedictine monasteries were well endowed and the monks themselves were usually from wealthy families. Originally there were only eight monks. The Order of St Benedict placed great value on work, as well as prayer and spiritual study, but servants would have done most of the manual labour required by the monastery.
The beautiful architectural detailing and window tracery of the west front (1226-44) would have been very 'modern' indeed in its time. It is now one of Binham's claims to fame (Trevor Ashwin)
Building of the monastic church began at the east end, probably before 1100, and gradually moved westward. The cores of the walls and columns are of flint rubble, and the fine limestone facing stone from Caen (Normandy) and Barnack (near Peterborough) were brought most of the way by water. The westernmost part of the nave was probably being built c. 1190, at a time when Gothic pointed arches were starting to replace round-headed Norman ones.
The west front of the Priory probably dates to c. 1220-45, and the period of Prior Richard de Parco. Although now damaged (the lower part of the great west window fell into disrepair and was bricked up in the early 19th century), this is one of the finest pieces of medieval architecture in Norfolk. Its traceried window would then have been one of the most modern in all of England, along with examples at Westminster Abbey. The entire west front was skilfully restored in 1987-90.
The history of the Priory was eventful, and not always characterised by high spiritual standards. The monks often quarrelled with the village and with the Priory’s ‘mother house’, the Abbey of St Albans. One dispute with the Abbot of St Albans in 1212 led to a full-scale siege. In 1335 a prior had to flee after investing the Priory’s wealth in alchemy experiments. In the 14th century there may have been as many as 14 monks but their number then declined, as did the Priory’s income.
The cloister today. A series of interpretation panels throughout the site provides information for visitors
At the Dissolution in 1539 there were only six monks. The nave was retained as the parish church but the rest of the complex, including the entire east end of the church, was sold to the Paston family. They demolished the choir, transepts and monastic buildings and sold or re-used much of the fine building stone. In fact, much of this stone can be seen in buildings that still stand in the village today. The south nave aisle was demolished and the arcade openings walled in. A wall was erected across the east end of the nave, on top of the medieval choir screen, to mark the new east end of the church.
The Office of Works carried out major excavations and consolidation of the ruins in the 1930s in the cloister and surrounding ranges
The state of the church deteriorated during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The north aisle was demolished in the early 19th century. Tragically, the great west window was partly blocked up in 1809. Only in the early 20th century was the building restored, with the replacement of the timber roof, and the restoration of the original floor levels (which had been built up over many years in a failed attempt at fighting damp).
After the Trust acquired the cloister ruins in 1933, there were several seasons of excavation by the Office of Works. These revealed the cloisters – along with the east end of the church, the heart of any medieval monastery – and the buildings surrounding it. These included the chapter house (where monks held their business meetings), the monks' parlour (or sitting room), the warming room (with a fireplace to provide warmth on chill winter evenings) and an upstairs dormitory with a vaulted undercroft below. Leading off the dormitory was the reredorter (toilets).
On the south side of the cloisters was the refectory (dining room), with kitchens behind. To the west lay storerooms and accommodation for the prior and his guests. Traces of other unexcavated structures disappear out into the surrounding meadow beyond the area excavated in the 1930s. Although thorough, the 1930s excavation was not conducted to modern standards, and huge amounts of rubble were shovelled away en masse to expose the medieval plan.
Norfolk Heritage Explorer
Find out more about Binham Priory using the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website. http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/SingleResult.aspx?uid=MNF2081.
The Priory also has its own informative website at www.binhampriory.org.
An excellent modern guidebook is on sale at the church.
Hundleby, A.R., 2004. The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross and the Monastic Precinct, Binham, Norfolk (Binham PCC)
Aston, M., 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape (Stroud, Tempus)
Coppack, G., 2006. Abbeys and Priories (Stroud, Tempus)
Pestell, T., 2005. ‘Monasteries’, in T. Ashwin and A. Davison (eds), An Historical Atlas of Norfolk, 3rd edition (Chichester, Phillimore), 66–7
Pestell, T., 2004. Landscapes of Monastic Foundation: The Establishment of Religious Houses in East Anglia, c. 650–1200 (Woodbridge, Boydell)
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