St Mary's Carmelite Friary and holy well


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1013095

Date first listed: 17-Dec-1929

Date of most recent amendment: 22-Jul-1995


Ordnance survey map of St Mary's Carmelite Friary and holy well
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Norfolk

District: King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)

Parish: Burnham Norton

County: Norfolk

District: King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)

Parish: Burnham Overy

National Grid Reference: TF 83898 42789


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

A friary is an institution housing a community of friars. The friars (from the Latin "frater" meaning "brother") were a novel religious movement which began in Italy in the late 12th century and which advocated a "mendicant" life- style. Owning no property of their own, they lived by moving from community to community begging for the alms and gifts of benefactors as they went. Unlike the older monastic orders, who were dedicated to a continuous round of prayer within a single monastery, the friars main concerns were preaching, evangelism and learning as they moved from friary to friary. Friaries were established in England from the early 13th century onwards, the first houses being founded in Canterbury, London and Oxford during 1224. By the time of the dissolution of the religious orders in the 1530s approximately 189 friaries had been founded for a number of different groups of friars, each with their individual missions. The most important groups were the Franciscans (the Greyfriars), who eventually established some 60 houses, the Dominicans (the Blackfriars - represented by 50 houses), the Carmelites (the Whitefriars with 41 houses) and the Augustinians or Austin Friars who had a similar number. In addition to these large groups there were a number of smaller ones: the Crutched Friars (9 houses), the Friars of the Sack (17 houses), the Pied Friars (3 houses) and the Trinitarian Friars (5 houses). The sites chosen by or for friaries were usually within towns, often in the less valuable, marginal areas. Here the friars laid out groups of buildings with many components found on older monastic sites, though the restricted sites sometimes necessitated unconventional building plans. The buildings were centred on a church and a cloister and usually contained a refectory (dining hall), a chapter house and an infirmary (for the care of the sick). The buildings were set within a precinct defined by other properties or by its own purpose built wall, but the public were not totally excluded. The naves of the friary churches, in particular, were designed to accommodate large public gatherings assembled to hear the friars preach. Friaries made a great contribution to later medieval life, in the towns particularly, and their remains add greatly to our understanding of the close inter-relationship between social and religious aspects of life in the high Middle Ages. All examples which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

St Mary's Carmelite Friary is unusual in its rural setting and in the survival almost intact of its precinct boundary. The precinct as a whole has not undergone the kind of extensive encroachment or redevelopment which has obscured the remains of most friaries on urban sites, and disturbance by later activity, including agriculture and building, has been slight over most of the area. The gatehouse, which is the most complete of the surviving medieval structures, is considered to be one of the finest friary gatehouses remaining in the country and is of great architectural interest. The monument includes a range of other visible structural remains and features which illustrates the general layout and organisation of the friary, and the remains which are known to be preserved below the ground surface are likely to include evidence for structures and activities relating to its earlier history and development, as well as for the final form of the buildings and for their later use and demolition. Although holy wells are quite common features in the landscape it is quite rare in Eastern England for religious orders to adopt them and incorporate them within their precincts. The fact that, in this case, the well was only taken up in this way in the 13th century, and then by an order of friars, is most unusual. The damp and waterlogged conditions associated with the springs and water control features in the northern part of the monument will preserve organic materials including environmental evidence which will allow an insight into the use of the wells through time as well as some understanding of the economy of the friary and the landscape in which it was set.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


St Mary's Carmelite Friary is located on the east side of a minor road connecting two roads which run from Burnham Norton village, c.1.25km to the north west, and from Burnham Overy Town, 350m to the east, to Burnham Market, c.500m to the south west. The site is c.100m south west of the River Burn and c.1km inland from the river estuary and Overy Creek, on ground which slopes down to a marshy valley bottom. The monument includes the friary precinct, c.2.3ha in extent, which is enclosed by the remains of a boundary wall and contains the upstanding masonry and earthwork remains of the friary church and other buildings, together with a spring identified as a holy well and the remains of water control features adjoining the walled precinct.

The friary was the earliest Carmelite house to be established in Norfolk, following the departure of the order from Mount Carmel in Palestine in 1238. It was founded in 1242 by Ralph Hempnale and William Calethorpe on a site at Bradmer, east of Burnham Norton village and adjacent to the coastal marshes, and was moved to the present site in 1253. The friary was enlarged in 1298, when a quarter of an acre of meadow was taken in, and again in 1353 by the gift of an additional three acres, and there are records of various bequests to the friars during the 15th and early 16th centuries. The terms of one of these, in 1505, indicate that there were then about 15-17 friars living here, including the prior and novices. Robert Bale, a distinguished Carmelite scholar who wrote a history of the order, was prior at the end of the 15th century, and died and was buried at Burnham in 1503. In 1537, two Carmelites from Burnham were among those arrested and convicted for complicity in a planned uprising against King Henry VIII, and one of them, John Peacock, was executed at Lynn. When the friary was dissolved in the following year, there were only four friars remaining. The buildings were left standing, and the land was sold eventually in 1554 to Lady Anne Calthorpe. It later passed to a local branch of the Pepys family, relatives of the diarist Samuel.

The precinct is now occupied partly by a field and partly by the garden of Friary Cottage which adjoins the western end of the field on its north side. The principal entry to the precinct was through a gatehouse which still stands fronting the road on the western boundary. The remains of the church, which was the focus of the friary, lie in the north west part of the precinct, with the west door directly opposite the gate arch and only 7.5m from it. Evidence for the conventual buildings can be seen to the north of the church. The outer area of the precinct, to south and east of the church and conventual buildings, is subdivided into rectilinear closes by low earthen banks which are thought to be of medieval origin. The wall on the north boundary of the precinct skirts an area of low lying, marshy ground and, to the north east of the friary buildings, turns for a short distance to follow the upper edge of a steep, north east facing scarp. Below this scarp and beyond the projected line of the wall are the holy well and the remains of artificially cut water channels believed to be associated with the friary.

The ruined and partly ruined boundary wall, built of mortared flint rubble, is visible on the east, north and west sides of the precinct. On the east and north sides it stands to a height of between 0.5m and 2.4m and measures up to 0.9m thick at the base, and near the centre of the eastern side there is a gap c.2.5m wide which may mark an original opening. On the west side the remains are visible to the north of the gatehouse for a distance of c.80m, and traces of masonry in the roadside bank indicate that it probably extended for a further 20m. The upstanding part shows evidence of extensive patching and rebuilding with random chalk, brick and reused stone, but there is an opening with the remains of a stone jamb c.10m north of the gatehouse. South of the gatehouse, the continuing line of the wall alongside the road is marked by a well defined bank in which traces of masonry can be seen. The bank stands to a height of c.1m on the inner, eastern side, although the road to the west is raised to almost the same level. Along the southern side of the precinct, the line is preserved in a field bank which is less prominent except at its eastern end, where further traces of underlying masonry are visible.

The gatehouse, which is Listed Grade I and included in the scheduling, is dated to the 14th century and is of two storeys built of flint rubble, faced on the east and west walls with knapped flint and galetting (flint chips set in mortar) and with dressings of imported limestone. On the west face, a high, segmental arch frames the arch of the gate opening and a wide recess which surmounts the opening and contains stone pedestals for three statues, now missing. In the wall on either side of the outer arch is a trefoil headed niche, and above is the opening, now blocked, of the large west window of the chamber above the gate, flanked by blind traceried windows. The tracery of the central window fell out in the 1950s, although records of it survive. The arch on the inner, east face of the gate is supported by triple attached columns, and to either side of it are trefoil headed niches similar to those on the west face. Above the arch is another niche, flanked by blind traceried windows. The interior of the gate arch is of two bays with wall shafts supporting ribbed stone vaulting, and there is a door opening in the south wall. The chamber above the gate arch was evidently used as a chapel, since it is recorded that in 1392 the friary received alms `for the conservation of the chapel situate over the gate'. It is entered by a door at first floor level in the north wall. A late 18th century engraving depicting the gatehouse shows the upper storey roofless and partly ruinous. The gables, which include three lancet windows in the west gable, were repaired, the upper part of the north and south walls were restored and the upper chamber was reroofed in the mid 19th century.

The proximity of the church to the gatehouse is unusual and may be explained in part by the fact that the land available for building was limited by the marshy ground to the north east, but it also emphasises the accessibility of the church to the surrounding lay community, and the function of the friary as a centre for preaching and evangelism.

Until the late 18th century, a part of the church was still in use as a farm building, although the west gable wall is now the only part of the structure which stands above ground. The general plan of the remainder, which is typical of a friary church, is revealed by linear earthworks which mark the buried remains of the principal walls. It has an overall length of c.39m and is essentially rectangular, divided into two parts of almost equal length by a cross wall which will have been pierced by a chancel arch. The nave, to the west of the cross wall, is c.17m in length and c.8m wide, with a single aisle to the south. The eastern end of the church, which contained the friars' choir, is subdivided by two low banks c.1.5m wide and c.2m apart, covering relatively slight masonry footings. The buried footing of the main east wall of the church is visible as a substantial earthwork, but beyond this, slighter banks define an extension of identical width and measuring c.5m east-west.

The standing west wall, which is Listed Grade II* and included in the scheduling, is constructed, like the gatehouse, of flint rubble with stone dressings. It includes a central doorway with chamfered stone arch and jambs, flanked by niches similar to those on the gatehouse. Above the doorway is the blocked opening of the lower part of the west window.

The plan of the conventual buildings of the friary cannot be traced in detail, but the evidence of the earthworks and standing fragments of wall shows that they were grouped around a rectangular cloister abutting the north wall of the church, with additional courts adjoining to the north and east, and probably to the west. The east and west sides of the enclosure identified as the cloister are defined by low banks c.3m-4m wide. The western bank runs northwards from the west end of the north wall of the nave and at right angles to it, and a parallel earthwork c.26m to the east covers what are probably the remains of one wall of the eastern claustral range. According to the usual arrangement, the latter would have included a chapter house, where the daily business of the friary was discussed, and an upper storey housing the dorter (dormitory). The north side of the square is defined by a ruined flint wall which runs east-west along the boundary of Friary Cottage garden, parallel to the north wall of the church and c.20m from it. From the north east angle of the square, a substantial flint wall, standing to a height of c.2m, extends northwards c.6m, perhaps marking the east end of the north claustral range. Another length of wall, offset to the east, continues on the same alignment to the south east angle of Friary Cottage and includes at its northern end a blocked opening with stone jambs. Both sections of wall are thought to be medieval in origin, although patched and altered, and are included in the scheduling.

Within the square of the cloister, abutting the north wall of the church, there are traces of a rectangular structure of uncertain date measuring c.8m north-south.

Friary Cottage, which is dated partly to the 18th century with 20th century alterations and additions, includes substantial remains of a medieval building identified as part of the friary, perhaps an infirmary or guesthall. On the north, east and south sides there are extensive areas of flint rubble walling, much patched and altered but with at least one blocked opening in the north wall and with stone quoins at the north east angle. At first floor level in the eastern gable wall there are two small rectangular windows with stone surrounds and mullions, one on each side of the blocked opening for a large chimney (the details of the northern of the two are largely or wholly a modern reproduction). There is a also a massive stone buttress against the north end of the east wall. Friary Cottage, which is Listed Grade II, is excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath it is included. Masonry and brick foundations of other buildings are known to survive below the ground surface to the north of the house, and have been observed in the course of excavations for service trenches, although nothing of them is visible above ground.

The area to the east of the church and cloister square is enclosed by the remains of another substantial flint wall which projects eastwards from the east end of the south wall of the church for a distance of c.4m, then returns northward, running c.18m from, and parallel to, the wall on the east side of the cloister. Within this court, the grass covered masonry footings of part of a rectangular building can be seen, abutting the inner face of the eastern wall. Another length of wall, partly ruined and containing at least two blocked openings, runs southward from the western boundary wall of the precinct towards the north west corner of the cloister, so as partly to define a court to the north of the gatehouse and the west door of the church. Although it is of later construction than the precinct wall, it is likely to be of medieval origin and is included in the scheduling.

The areas of the precinct to the south and east are likely to have been used for domestic and horticultural or small scale agricultural activities and to have included yards and/or paddocks, gardens and perhaps an orchard, as well as stables and other service buildings. A broad east-west bank, c.0.5m in height, and two lesser banks which run northwards at right angles to it define the series of closes into which the area is divided. Other, smaller mounded areas, including one against the western precinct wall c.70m south of the gatehouse, perhaps mark the sites of buildings.

The water supply for the friary was provided by springs rising at the foot of the scarp to the north east of the conventual buildings, and in the marshy ground immediately to the east of this there are also various features constructed to control the flow of water. One of the springs, located c.40m north of Friary Cottage, is identified in local tradition as a holy well or wishing well and is marked on old editions of OS maps as `Our Lady's Well'. The spring, which produces a steady flow of fresh water, lies in a waterlogged hollow and is surrounded by a submerged brick or masonry kerb forming a small rectangular cistern. The cistern has internal dimensions of c.0.4m east-west by 0.5m north-south and overall dimensions of c.0.8m square. The water, overflowing the kerb, runs eastwards in the bottom of a straight channel c.0.5m wide, which connects with a second second channel running northwards from just below the northern boundary wall of the precinct to the river. There is a tradition that this channel was used for the transport of building stone to the friary. The two channels at right angles to one another, with the scarp to the south west of them, enclose a roughly triangular area with maximum dimensions of c.63m north-south by 73m east- west. Within this area are other features which are thought to include the remains of part of a system of drainage from the friary buildings.

In addition to Friary Cottage, an outbuilding to the north east of the house is excluded from the scheduling, together with the surfaces of driveways and paths within the surrounding garden, and track surfaces in the adjoining field, all modern boundary fences and gates, a service pole with its support cable near the southern boundary of the field, an inspection chamber near the western edge of the field, and an information board with its supports within the gatehouse, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 21389

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Copsey, R, Carm, O, The Medieval Carmelite Friary at Burnham Norton, (1987)
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 425,426
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 234
Copies with Norfolk County Council, Architects Drawings,
Davison, C, 1991, typescript
Philips, M & Smith, J, (1994)
Philips, M, (1994)
Photo with Norfolk County Council, View of Friary from Friary Lane (engraving),
Title: 1:10560 Norfolk VII NE Source Date: Author: Publisher: Surveyor:

End of official listing