Norfolk Archaeological Trust cares for properties of all sizes. Our sites range from areas that encompass whole landscapes, to individual buildings just off the road – an excellent example of the latter is Burnham Norton Friary. It seems like an unassuming building at first, one which could easily be missed as you drive past. But this little building is an indispensable part of local religious history.

Friaries arose in Italy in the 12th century, due to disputes in how to practice the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Friars distinguished themselves from other Christians in three main ways.  Rejecting any sort of church luxury, they abandoned possessions altogether. Instead of being tied to one site, they roamed the land, surviving through begging, and rather than measure their piety through study of the Bible, they adopted a more evangelical approach, preaching the gospel of Christ to the laypeople. As the twelfth century gave way to the thirteenth, numerous groups of friars emerged, including the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and the Carmelites. It was this last group who were responsible for Burnham Norton Friary.

The Carmelite order were late converts to the friary system. Little is known about when and how they originated, but by the time of the Crusades they were a hermit sect in Israel’s Mount Carmel. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, they were pushed out by the reconquest of the area by Muslims and dispersed across Western Europe. There, they began taking up a more nomadic lifestyle, adopting the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Burnham Norton was the fourth Carmelite friary to be established in England, being founded in 1241 by Sir William Calthorpe and Sir Ralph Hemenhale. By 1298, the Burnham friars were granted licence for a rood of meadow, which was enlarged in 1353.

In the fifteenth century, Burnham Friary was the home of Robert Bale, the Carmelite order’s most distinguished theologian and writer. He amassed one an extensive library for the friary in his lifetime, as well as producing his own history of the Carmelites. His body was interred in Burnham Norton after his death in 1503.

By the time of Bale’s death, however, archaeological records suggest that the friary was in a decline. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, it only supported seventeen friars. By the time it was dissolved under Henry VIII, it only had four.

Today, the friary is notable for how much of it is still standing. The precinct boundary is almost intact, as well as the west wall and the gatehouse. Like many Norfolk buildings from the time, these are all constructed from flint, a cheap material that is easily obtained from the surroundings.

Like Tasburgh Enclosure, Burnham Norton benefitted from the Imagined Land project, a collaboration with the Heritage Lottery Fund to encourage local engagement with Norfolk’s heritage. We collaborated with locals to run test pits, seeing what could be unearthed in their gardens and fields. This was backed up by creative writing and artistic projects in schools, and by local artists. All of this cumulated in a historical pageant celebrating the two sites, with various local creative groups involved.

Images by Steve Clipperton