Burnham Norton Friary
The ruins of the Carmelite Friary of St Mary, Burnham Norton, are situated in north Norfolk about 0.5 km north-east of Burnham Market village. From the end of the 12th century, the various orders of friars won more and more support from medieval people, who were impressed by their commitment to genuine poverty and to preaching. Because friars depended not on revenue from lands but from charitable donations they preferred to settle in towns and cities, and most of Norfolk’s friaries were in Norwich, King’s Lynn, Yarmouth and Thetford. Three were in smaller settlements, however – at Walsingham, at Blakeney and here at Burnham Norton.
One of the four principal orders of friars, the Carmelite order was founded in 1226 and it expanded steadily across Europe, reaching England in 1242. Burnham Norton was the fourth Carmelite house in England, and the first in Norfolk. Founded in 1241 by Sir William Calthorp and Sir Ralph Hemenhall, it obtained a licence to enlarge its premises in 1298, and again in 1353, but its success was clearly modest. Few documents survive, but it is thought that seventeen friars were in residence in the early 16th century.
The meadow in which the site stands was acquired by the Trust under a lease agreement in 2010. The only building still standing intact is the beautiful little 14th-century gatehouse standing at the roadside.
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Access and facilities
Although the friary is in Burnham Norton parish, it is actually much closer to Burnham Market than it is to Burnham Norton village. It is located at TF 838 428 (OS Explorer sheet 251).
- by road: from the A149 coast road, south-east of Burnham Norton Village, turn towards Burnham Market and Fakenham on the B1355; then take the first turn on the left (Friar’s Lane). Soon you will reach the Friary gatehouse on the left, opposite the Primary School. From Burnham Market village, drive a short distance westward along the B1155 Overy Road before turning left into Friar’s Lane – from this direction, the Friary is on the right-hand side of the road opposite the school. SatNav: PE31 8JA. There is a roadside parking area to the north of the gatehouse on the bend on the east side of the road. Please do not park directly alongside the gatehouse, and take special care during school hours.
- by bus: the nearest bus stop is on the B1155 between Burnham Market and Burnham Overy Town, at the junction of Overy Road and Friar’s Lane. It is served by the frequent Coastliner service CH2, and by Norfolk Green Service 34 (Wells–Dersingham). For up to date timetable information, please visit http://www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk.
You can visit the site at any reasonable time. There is an interpretation panel near the gatehouse. There are no toilets or other visitor facilities. However, there are pubs and cafes nearby in the centre of Burnham Market. There is also a pub on the A149 Coast Road at Burnham Overy Staithe.
You can easily combine a visit to the friary with one to another Trust property, the Iron Age fort at Bloodgate Hill, South Creake. This is only 8km south of Burnham Market, a short distance off the road from Burnham to Fakenham.
More information about Burnham Norton Friary
The most obvious features are:
the gatehouse, which stands on the road opposite the school gates,
parts of the precinct wall, which runs north alongside the road from the gatehouse,
the west wall of the friary church standing close behind the gatehouse.
The rest of the church and the other monastic buildings can be seen only as ‘humps and bumps’ in the meadow behind. These rather fine earthworks form a single line, indicating a range of buildings subdivided into six compartments. Presumably the compartment at the west end was the church and then the rest of the group fulfilled other functions. This is a site which is not easy to understand without excavation, and we have no record of any excavations taking place.
The upstanding remains and the earthworks are all within a meadow managed by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust on a 50-year lease from the Holkham Estate. To the north of the meadow is a private house, Friary Cottage, which has much dressed stonework in it. A lot of this is re-used; however, the north east corner of the house and its adjoining buttress certainly look original. What part this building played in the layout of the monastery is not clear. It has been assumed that the northern boundary of the monastery followed the remains of the wall along the north side of the meadow, but now that it is fairly certain that parts of Friary Cottage are medieval, the full extent of the monastery is an open question.
The friary precinct is defined by the road on the west side and by a ditch in boggy ground to the east. Its southern side probably follows a very low east-to-west earthwork bank running across the field, as shown on the plan. Otherwise, the meadow has few signs of other features of archaeological interest. Most of the visible archaeological remains are clustered near the gatehouse.
The architectural features of the beautiful gatehouse suggest a date of about 1320, with the flint flushwork being some of the earliest in this area. An 18th-century etching depicts a view along the road from the south, with a ruined gatehouse on the right. There is also an 18th-century engraving, contemporary with the restoration of the gatehouse, showing the original tracery in the main window in full detail. The gatehouse was re-roofed in the 1920s. The tracery in the window today is modern, dating from a further restoration by Norfolk County Council in 1996 when it was cleverly repaired using brick mullions, designed by architect Ruth Blackman. Below the window is a richly moulded recess with bases for three missing statues.
The metal spiral staircase was added in 1996 and replaced the original stone spiral staircase, traces of which were found in excavations before the new staircase was erected.
The west wall of the small church behind the gatehouse has a central doorway, niches for statues to either side and a blocked window above. The same eighteenth-century etching that shows the gatehouse as a ruin also shows the church fully roofed, probably in use as a barn. The door was bricked up until it was opened as a part of Norfolk County Council’s restoration work of 1996. The wall was built up with later materials to form a gable, long after it ceased to be a church.
The end of the friary
At the Dissolution Thomas Cromwell received a letter from Jane Calthorp in 1538 asking him to petition the king to allow her to purchase the house when there were then only four friars remaining. They were apparently too poor to maintain the property and were happy to sell up. However, the king gave the monastery to Sir Richard Gresham and the friary was closed. Two of the friars from this house were implicated in the notorious 'Walsingham conspiracy' of 1537. This was a local attempt at protest against the suppression of the monasteries. William Gibson was sentenced to life imprisonment and John Pecock was executed in Lynn.
We have no further documents to help us understand the site or what happened to it afterwards, except for the Tithe Map of 1840 when the building believed to have been the church, presumably still in use as a barn, was divided into two parts. Friary Cottage and the field to the north were then called ‘Friar’s Common’.
Norfolk Heritage Explorer
Find out more about Burnham Norton Friary on the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website (http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/SingleResult.aspx?uid=MNF1738).
A full architectural description of the gatehouse and west wall of the church can be found in:
Pevsner, N. and Wilson, B, 1999. The Buildings of England Norfolk 2: north-west and south, 2nd edn, p. 230-1.
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