Carrow Priory, a Benedictine convent founded in 1146 and suppressed in 1538.
Reasons for Designation
Carrow Priory, a Benedictine convent founded in 1146 and suppressed in 1538, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:
* for the exceptional standing, buried and earthwork remains, depicting the form, plan and architectural detail of the priory.
* for the stratified archaeological deposits which retain considerable potential to increase our understanding of the physical characteristics of the buildings at Carrow and of medieval female religious houses more generally.
* for the high level of historical and archaeological documentation pertaining to the priory's history and evolution and to the significance of the women who lived here.
* for the range and complexity of features such as the church, prioress's house, cloister, dormitory range, chapter house and wider precincts.
* as an outstanding example of one of a small number of known female religious houses to have been established in England.
* there is a close relationship between the priory and other listed buildings and structures around the former precinct, most notably the Grade I listed building known as Carrow Abbey.
Carrow Priory was established in 1146. King Stephen granted the land for the site to two Benedictine nuns, Seyna and Lescelina, and the convent was dedicated to St Mary and St John of Norwich. Religious houses for women were unusual in medieval England, only around 153 are known to have existed, and very few enjoyed substantial endowments or royal patronage. Carrow was therefore unusual as a significant institution with a church second in size only to the city's cathedral during the Norman period.
Secluded from the outside world, the community of Benedictine sisters would have followed a steady routine: they slept in the upper storey of the dormitory; they observed the canonical hours in the choir beneath the crossing tower; they conducted the governance of the priory in the chapter house; they used the vaulted day room at the ground floor of the dormitory or the brighter cloister for daily work; they ate together in the refectory. Though the buildings and many aspects of religious practice changed over time, life at the priory in the 1530s would have been recognisable to the first generation there nearly four centuries before.
The institution is relatively well documented in visitation records, which generally show between 10 and 20 nuns living at Carrow. The Prioresses of Carrow were powerful landowning women and, as such, they have an unusually high degree of visibility in the historic record, with figures such as Edith Wilton (d 1430) and Margaret Pygot (d 1474) featuring in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The C14 mystic Julian of Norwich, the first female author of a surviving book in the English language, may have been educated at Carrow. Under visitation in the early C16 the greatest complaints from amongst the sisterhood were the lack of a clock, the speedy recitation of offices, and the weakness of the beer.
John Skelton, poet laureate to Henry VIII, referred to the priory in the Litle Boke of Phyllyp Sparow, in which a young woman raised at the convent has her pet sparrow killed by Gib, the priory cat.
The Suppression Commissioners recorded eight nuns living at Carrow at the time of its closure in 1538. There were 17 other people then living at the convent, including two priests, seven hands for the husbandry, and eight female servants. Prioress Suffield was dismissed with a pension of £8. The priory and its revenues were given to Sir John Shelton.
Shelton, a courtier and Anne Boleyn's uncle by marriage, was a significant figure in Norwich. While he retained the prioress's residence, the rest of the complex was ultimately robbed of its materials and allowed to fall into ruin. Over the next three centuries the house and grounds passed through a series of owners.
During that time the site's prominent position above the River Wensum and the Romantic quality of its ruins attracted some local interest. The house was painted in a derelict condition in 1805 by John Crome, a founding figure of the ‘Norwich School’ of artists.
In 1811 Carrow Abbey was acquired by Philip Martineau, a physician and local landowner, who rented the house to a series of tenants. Images and maps from Martineau's period of ownership show the survival of the Strangers’ Hall and Parlour in the prioress’s residence before its restoration.
In 1850, land immediately to the north of the Carrow Abbey estate was purchased by the successful mustard, flour and starch milling business of J and J Colman Ltd from the Norfolk Railway Company. Jeremiah James Colman was Martineau's last tenant and lived at the abbey whilst Carrow House was being enlarged as the family residence. By 1878 Colman and his firm owned most of the surrounding land and finally bought Carrow Abbey, originally using it to house Jeremiah's large library. The building underwent thorough restoration during this new ownership. Much of the work has been attributed to Norwich architect Edward Boardman, who also designed a range of ancillary buildings serving the abbey.
In 1879 Jeremiah, locally known as a patron of antiquarianism, invited the British Archaeological Society to visit the priory. At their behest the site was excavated in 1881 with photographs and a detailed report produced (see sources).
In 1890 Colman's son in law, Rt Hon James Stuart PC MP, moved into the Abbey. Between 1899 and 1909 he extended and further restored the house, as well as conserving the excavated ruins as a feature of the grounds. The southern wing of the house was built as part of this expansion, also to Boardman’s designs.
In 1968 a large single storey modernist canteen (the Abbey Dining Room) was built covering the buried remains of the nave of the priory church and connected to the north gable of the house. The foundations of the new building were designed to preserve the archaeological remains beneath it.
A century after the first excavation, in 1981-1983, Colman’s, English Heritage and Norwich City Council collaborated to excavate and conserve the priory once again. Stonework was repaired or consolidated, floor areas were gravelled, and the project was photographed and recorded (now in the Unilever archives).
In 1995, the mustard and condiment side of what had become Reckitt and Colman Ltd was sold to Unilever, while another of its brands, Robinson’s, was acquired by Britvic. In 2017, Britvic announced it would close its Carrow Works factory in 2019, prompting Unilever to review its own future on the site, which led to a decision to cease production in 2020.
PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS: Carrow Priory was a Benedictine convent founded in 1146 and suppressed in 1538.
DESCRIPTION: the site lies on Carrow Hill, above the levelled ground on the south side of the River Wensum, beyond the eastern boundary of Norwich's medieval city walls (scheduled monument, National Heritage List for England (NHLE) entry 1004023).
The monument survives as upstanding and buried remains, including the priory church, and the claustral ranges of the inner precinct. The area encompasses the Grade I listed prioresses house (Carrow Abbey NHLE entry 1205742) and is surrounded by Carrow Works, developed by Colman's from the second half of the C19 as their centre of production. The excavated buildings all have massed flint walling, with some surviving dressed stone for steps and column bases.
The Benedictine priory followed a standard plan: an outer precinct provided access to the nave of the church, the strangers’ hall of the prioress’s residence, and to ancillary buildings. Meanwhile the cloistered nuns remained secluded within the inner precinct.
A gatehouse on the north side of the priory, roughly 40m north-west of the west front of the church, provided access to the outer court. The gatehouse was excavated in 1881 when a cellar vault was also identified, though no remains are visible above ground. Further to the north-west are the standing remains of a C19 brick and flint wall. The prioress’s residence survives as the Grade I listed building called Carrow Abbey. Evidence of the nave and its west front survives as buried remains, beneath the (1968) Abbey Dining Room.
The priory church formed the architectural and spiritual focus of the priory. It was large (195ft long) with a cruciform plan, a crossing tower, and an aisled nave seven bays long. The tower, transepts and chancel have been dated to the C12 and the nave and aisles to the C13. The base of the flint walling of the south transept and the chancel survives as upstanding remains varying between 0.9 and 1.4m thick. Some finely carved column bases survive, the largest indicating the presence of a crossing tower. The base of a slim spiral staircase survives in the south-east corner of the transept. Remnants of dressed stone and traces of dark red limewash (south of the presbytery steps) hint at the sophistication of the interior. Chapels dedicated to St Catherine and St John the Baptist stood north and south of the chancel, and a sacristy adjoined the east end of the south transept. Markers indicate capped graves identified during excavation.
The inner court followed a traditional monastic plan, arranged around a cloister with a garth (or garden) at its centre. The cloister was roughly square in plan; the south west corner survives as a freestanding flint masonry block, with plaster remnants on its interior face; the north east corner meets the angle of the nave and the transept where a niche survives on the south side of the church.
South of the transept was a ‘slype’ connecting to the chapter house, which had three vaulted bays. Beyond that was the two-storey dormitory range and an adjoining latrine block to the east. On the west side of the cloister was the Prioress’s residence. On the south side, the remains of the refectory and other outbuildings are hidden below ground.
The most substantial survival of the claustral buildings is the ground floor, or day room, of the dormitory range. It is seven bays long and the west wall extends upwards just beyond the floor level of the upper storey. One (restored) doorway survives along with blocked openings for windows and the base of a doorway into the cloister garth. At the south west corner the springing point of a stone vault remains and the line of the vaulting can be seen along three bays of the west wall, including one surviving corbel. Put-log holes can be seen on the outer part of the walls.
There are two distinct heaps of stone spolia, containing some carved and moulded stonework. One lies in a line immediately south of the south-west corner of the dormitory range. The other is roughly 45m south-east of the dormitory.
Immediately east of the rustic summerhouse is the remains of a flint wall roughly 9m long and 0.5m wide, running west-east. A brick and flint opening can be found at its midpoint. Further ruinous flint-and-mortar rubble blocks can be found on its south side. This has been interpreted on maps as the remains of the hospital.
The possible precinct walls on the east, south and western boundaries are fragmentary and have, along the south and west sides especially, been incorporated in to C19 flint and brick walling. The area of boundary wall directly south of the Grade I listed house is especially thick and appears to incorporate the in-filled base of window openings.
The gardens east of the Grade I listed house were planted in the late C19 with a variety of native trees. A mature mulberry stands west of the south transept, and on the south side of the chancel is a large weeping beech. Close to the rustic summerhouse is a lime tree bearing a plaque that states it was planted in 1896 by the Duke of York (later King George V).
The ground between the upstanding ruins and the eastern boundary is uneven. Immediately east of the chapter house this area was excavated in 1881 and identified as a cemetery, the graves remaining in situ. East of the dormitory range LIDAR images indicate the presence of distinct ditches and banks which may relate to the medieval priory.
EXTENT OF SCHEDULING: the scheduled monument forms a roughly square area containing parts of the inner and outer precincts of the priory site. It is closely bordered to the east and north by the industrial parts of Carrow Works where the ground level has been dramatically altered. The schedule boundary along the east, south, and west sides follows an historic set of boundary walls, largely built of flint and brick. These walls appear to incorporate some areas of medieval fabric. The wall has been partially lost towards the northern parts of the area, but its position is marked on historic maps (1st and 2nd ed. OS). The north side the boundary is largely defined by a tree-covered bank and extends to the north-west to include the area believed to contain the medieval gatehouse.
EXCLUSIONS: the following buildings and structures are excluded from the scheduling: the Grade I listed building called Carrow Abbey; the C20 Abbey dining rooms; the bungalow attached to Carrow Abbey; Carrow Lodge, garage and Gardener's Cottage; the glasshouses close to the southern boundary of the scheduled area; the Reader House; the Rustic Summerhouse. The ground beneath all of the buildings and structures (whether listed or not) is included. All modern fences, gate posts, paths, road and track surfaces are also excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.