Binham Priory


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Binham Priory
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Norfolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TF 98209 39994

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk in which the precinct can be seen to remain essentially intact, and within the clearly defined precinct boundaries it contains a variety of structural remains and other features, many of which have been disturbed very little by later activity. The standing ruins of the church and conventual buildings display evidence of successive additions and alterations, some of which are documented in the historical record, and the associated parish church, in which many impressive architectural features of the monastic church are preserved intact, is a valuable source of comparative information, though not itself included in the scheduling. The quality of survival of extensive buried remains, including other buildings, over most of the surrounding area is demonstrated by the extent of the visible earthworks. The monument illustrates the layout and organisation of the monastery as a whole and will retain archaeological information relating to many aspects of the life and economy of the monastic community and the history of the site, up to and including the Dissolution and the subsequent dismantling of many of the buildings. The level of historical documentation, which is in part the result of the link between the priory and St Alban's Abbey, give it additional interest. As a site partly in the care of the Secretary of State and on display to the public it provides a valuable educational amenity.


The Priory of St Mary, Binham, is situated on the north side of Binham village, on ground which slopes to north and south down to a small tributary of the River Stiffkey. The monument includes the monastic precinct, the boundary of which is marked on the south west side by standing remains of a medieval wall and in parts elsewhere by linear earthworks believed to be of medieval origin, the entire circuit being followed by existing roads and tracks. Within the precinct are the upstanding ruins and buried remains of monastic buildings, and various earthworks which include the remains of a water mill and fishponds.

The priory, which was a cell of the Benedictine abbey of St Albans, was founded at the end of the 11th century by Peter de Valoines, and his wife. According to the foundation charter, it was to pay the sum of one silver mark annually to the mother house, and the abbot of St Albans, to whom the prior was subordinate, was entitled to visit once a year. It was, however, financially independent. The original endowments included the manor of Binham, which had been granted to de Valoines by William the Conqueror, and tithes from a number of other manors in Norfolk. In 1291 the annual income was assessed at 103 pounds 7 shillings and 5 pence, and in 1535 at 140 pounds 5 shillings and 4 pence. Notable deeds of some of the priors and the occasionally turbulent relations between the priory and its patrons and the mother house are chronicled in a history of the abbots of St Albans. The priory was suppressed in 1539 and most of its property, including the manor of Binham, was granted to Sir Thomas Paston. Dismantling of the monastic buildings began soon after. In 1553 rubble and stone from the priory was purchased from Sir Thomas for use in construction of a house in Wells, and Edward Paston, a descendant of Sir Thomas, carried out further demolition work with the intention of building a house on the site, only to abandon the project after a workman was killed by falling masonry.

The priory precinct is entered through a gatehouse, the ruins of which still stand on the west boundary of the precinct, fronting the road from Binham to Warham. The partly ruined priory church and the ruined walls and wall footings of the conventual buildings, which are the core of the monastic complex, occupy the higher ground in the south western part of the precinct, opposite and to the south east of the gatehouse, and between these and the western boundary of the precinct to the south of the gatehouse are the remains of a walled outer court containing masonry foundations of other substantial buildings. Adjoining the claustral complex on the east and south east side are earthworks defining further enclosures, and beyond these, bordering the stream which flows through the north and north eastern part of the precinct, are the remains of the mill pond with associated water management features. The ruined east end and south transept of the church and the area containing most of the conventual buildings to the south of it are in the care of the Secretary of State.

The ruined gatehouse, which is Listed Grade I and is included in the scheduling, is dated to the 15th century and, like the other principal monastic buildings visible within the precinct, is constructed chiefly of mortared flint rubble with stone dressings. The standing remains include most of the south wall together with parts of the stone moulding of the outer shafts and springing of the main outer gate arch and a smaller arch over a pedestrian entrance to the north of it, and the hollow chamfered mouldings of both shafts of the main inner arch. The entrances on both faces are flanked by the remains of projecting buttresses. Parts of the west, north and east walls of what was probably a porter's lodge also survive on the north side of the carriageway, enclosing but distinct from the later walls of a post medieval farm building which is excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath it is included.

The priory church, c.85m east of the gatehouse, is largely of 12th and 13th century date and is also Listed Grade I. It measures c.73m in overall length and is cruciform in plan, with aisled nave and east end and transepts to north and south of a central crossing. The nave and nave aisles are of nine bays, the first seven of which were used by the parish and separated from the eastern end of the church by stone and timber screens, parts of which remain visible across the nave and below a later blocking wall across the north aisle. The same section of the nave between the aisles remains intact and in use as the parish church, and is therefore totally excluded from the scheduling. The arches of the arcades which separate it from the aisles have been blocked between their massive piers to create the side walls, and an east wall has been constructed over the rood screen, in which the blocked arches of doorways to the eastern end of the church can be seen to either side of the altar. The construction of the nave is in three stages, with a triforium and a clerestory above the main arcades. In the three westernmost bays a change in architectural style from the round, 12th century arches of the rest of the nave to pointed arches of 13th century type, is evidence of an interruption in the building, and the west front, including the west ends of the aisles which stand to full height and are included in the scheduling, is in elaborately detailed 13th century style.

The rest of the church, including the aisles of the nave behind the west front, is now ruinous, although the north aisle is known to have remained largely intact until the early 19th century. The walls, which stand to varying heights between c.1m and c.14m, display a variety of features, including original architectural details of 12th and 13th century date, as well as evidence of later additions and alterations. The outer walls of the south aisle and the western part of the north aisle of the nave survive to a maximum height of c.1.3m, but the outer face of the north aisle wall is largely concealed by the build up of soil in the parish churchyard on that side, except for the stumps of the external buttresses, which project c.1m above it. Traces of vaulting are preserved on the internal faces of the walls at the west end of both, and surviving features in the outer wall of the north aisle include the lower jambs and sill of a doorway at the western end and the eastern jamb of the window of the seventh bay. The south aisle is subdivided by four cross walls which are later insertions. Two, at the fourth and sixth piers, are probably of late medieval date, to create a chapel in the fifth and sixth bays, and there are footings of a third wall, with the jambs of a doorway, across the eastern end of the ninth bay. The fourth is of post- medieval date and walls off the westernmost bay as a porch for an entrance to the parish church.

The original plan of the eastern, monastic, part of the church was symmetrical, with an apsidal presbytery of two bays, flanked by shorter apsidal aisles c.3m wide and with an apsidal chapel in each of the transepts. The footings of the apse off the south transept still stand above ground, and the outlines of the north aisle and the original east end of the presbytery, which were revealed by excavation in the 1930s, are outlined in concrete. The central crossing and the two easternmost bays of the nave contained the monks' choir. The four great piers which supported a tower above the crossing stand to a height of up to c.14m, and large areas of their original ashlar facing, including details of the multiple attached half shafts which supported the springing of the arches, remain intact on the flint rubble core. On the south side of the choir, immediately to the west of the crossing, are the bases of the jambs of a processional entrance from the cloister. The two eastern bays of the north aisle of the nave, adjacent to the choir, were probably used as a sacristy (for the storage of vestments and church vessels). Here the outer wall and two 12th century round arches across either end of the two bays survive to a height of c.8m. On the inner face of the outer wall there is a hearth with a chimney above it built into the blocking of an original window. This feature is thought to be of monastic date and was perhaps used for the baking of mass wafers. A small sunken chamber between the piers of the arcade opposite was possibly a strong room.

Successive alterations to the east end of the church produced the final plan which is represented by standing walls and wall footings. The east end of the presbytery, rebuilt in the first half of the 13th century, is square and c.4m longer than the original apse, and on the north side of the presbytery is a rectangular chapel of slightly later date, longer and wider than the aisle which it replaced. The foundations of another rectangular chapel were found in excavations to the north of this and are marked out on the ground surface, although there is no evidence that it was ever completed. The south aisle was altered in the 14th century by the construction of a new, square end. The bases of the original piers of the arcades between the presbytery and the aisles display various modifications relating to these later works.

The transepts also show evidence of alteration, including the demolition of the apses, as well as original features. In the south transept, the surviving walls include three recesses for tombs and the base of a stair in the south west angle. In the north transept, where the walls survive in places to almost the full original height, there are remains of a stair turret at clerestory level in the north east angle, and another stair at ground level in the north west angle, adjacent to an original door opening in the north wall. In the wall to the east of the door is the eastern jamb of a large window which is a later insertion, above the blocked opening of an original window. The conventual buildings are ranged around three sides of a sub-rectangular cloister measuring c.29m across which abuts the south side of the church. The standing masonry displays some features of 12th century date, as well as evidence of later additions and alterations, including extensive rebuilding in the second half of the 15th century. (According to the documentary record, the east range was in ruins in 1454, and there is archaeological evidence that this was the result of a fire).

The main entrance to the cloister was through a vaulted outer parlour at the north end of the west range, adjacent to the west end of the church. The parlour, which would have been used for meetings between the laity and monks, is of four bays to either side of a central arcade. One of the three pillars of the arcade and the bases of the other two remain, and the corbels which supported the springing of the vault survive on the north wall, on which the outline of the arches can also be seen. The west range was of two storeys and, according to the most usual practice, the upper floor probably housed the apartments used by the prior and perhaps accommodation for guests also. All that now survives of this is a part of the north wall above the parlour, with the remains of two large window openings, one of which retains evidence of tracery. The lower part of the chute from a garderobe (latrine) in the upper suite also survives on the outer face of the south wall of the parlour, adjacent to the south west angle. To the south of the outer parlour are the remains of a vaulted undercroft which would have been used chiefly for storage. The earliest part of this is a large room with a row of three massive piers of mid 12th century type to support a central north-south arcade. The original west wall was eventually demolished, and the remains of the piers are incorporated in a later north-south wall. The resulting narrower room contains bases for a central row of three smaller columns, and the northern end is partitioned off by an inserted cross wall. To the south of it, and at a lower level, is a smaller, square undercroft containing the lower part of a central pillar of late 13th century type. A door opening in the west wall of this smaller room communicates with an outer passage around the west and south sides. This passage, in which there are door openings giving access originally to the exterior of the building, is subdivided by two later walls. The areas to the west and south include remains of a rectangular building opposite the southern undercroft and passage, identified as possibly a 13th century larder mentioned in the records. Among other later additions is a room built across the northern end of the demolished west wall of the larger undercroft, abutting the south wall of the parlour.

The east range, which is c.54m in length overall was also originally of two storeys, although nothing remains of the upper floor which will have housed the dorter (monks' dormitory). The most important feature at ground floor level is the chapter house, where the monks met daily to discuss the business of the priory. This is at the north end of the range, abutting the south transept of the church. It was built originally with an apsidal east end, but in the 15th century the apse was replaced by a square end supported by angle buttresses, and the roof was replaced with a fan vault. The lower parts of the vertically ribbed half columns which supported the vault are preserved in the internal angles of the walls, together with the springing of the vault in the south east angle, where a fragment of wall stands to a height of c.7m. The bases of the original north jambs of the entrance from the cloister and an adjoining window also survive.

Immediately to the south of the chapter house is a room which served as a passage giving access from the cloister to the area beyond, and adjoining that is the narrow passage which contained the day stairs from the cloister to the dorter. Beyond are apartments identified as a parlour, and the warming house, with another undercroft at the eastern end. In the 15th century rebuilding of this part of the range, the walls were constructed above the levelled debris of the fire, which buried the interior of the earlier structure to a depth of up to 0.9m and preserved the remains of various features of 13th and 14th century date now exposed, including a brick backed fireplace in the east wall of the warming house, and several internally splayed window recesses containing stone window seats on either side. The original entrance to the warming house was a door on the west side, opening off a passage through the east end of the south range. In the reconstruction, the wall between the passage and the warming house was not replaced, and an internal buttress stands over the remains of the earlier door. The remains of the reredorter (monks' latrine) extend eastwards from the original south end of the range, which is c.14m beyond the line of the south claustral range. The stubs of the walls can be seen on the external face of the east wall, and the buried foundations to the east of this have been traced by parch marks recorded in air photographs. The east range was extended after the fire by the addition of another room at the south end, and this contains a kiln lined with brick of late medieval or early post-medieval type. Running westwards from the south west corner of this extension is a section of a wall, presumably contemporary, which probably served to separate this part of the claustral complex from a domestic service area. Beyond it and on a line with the east range are the remains of a free-standing rectangular building containing a fireplace in the east wall with two cisterns behind it - likely to have been one of the domestic service buildings such as a laundry or brewhouse.

The south claustral range contained the refectory. The blocked opening of the door from the cloister is visible at the west end of the north wall, and on the external face of the wall immediately to the west of the door, facing onto the cloister alley, are the remains of the laver (ceremonial washing place) visible as a wide, arched recess containing a bench which supported the trough. An external projection or thickening in the south wall near the east end of the refectory was to support the pulpit from which readings were given during meals, and to the west of this is a projecting rectangular cistern to store rain water from the roof. Alterations to this range in the 15th century included the insertion of an internal cross wall dividing the refectory into two. The west end was adapted for use as a kitchen, with a fireplace, oven and internal water tank. The wall footings of an earlier, detached kitchen containing a hearth with an adjacent sink and drain are exposed to the south of it, and to the east of this are masonry footings for a timber framed building.

The area of comparatively level ground on which the church and conventual buildings stand continues further to the east and is bounded on the east and north east side by an earthen bank along the upper edge of a well defined, scarp which has probably been enhanced by artificial terracing. This enclosure, which is sub-divided by slighter rectilinear earthworks, is thought to contain the monks'cemetery, usually located east of the church, and also the buried remains of the infirmary and infirmary chapel which, according to documentary sources, were built in the second quarter of the 13th century. At its southern end is another rectilinear earthwork enclosure which extends further to the south east, adjacent to the south western precinct boundary. In the external angle of the junction between these two enclosures is an elongated mound which may have supported a building.

On the west and north sides of the nave of the church is the parish cemetery which, with its post monastic boundary walls, is totally excluded from the scheduling, but below the boundary wall on the north side of the churchyard is an earthen bank overlying the footings of an earlier wall which is believed to be of medieval date and is included. The mortared flint rubble and a fragment of the ashlar plinth of this earlier wall are exposed in two places on the north side, and regularly spaced spurs extending northward from the eastern end of the bank may cover the remains of buttresses or the cross walls of a building.

The outer court was separated from the claustral complex to the east of it by walls, parts of which remain standing against the west end of the southern (post-monastic) boundary wall of the churchyard, and between the outer buildings of the western claustral range and the south west corner of the earlier, detached kitchen. At the northern end of the outer court, c.30m west of the entrance to the cloister, earthworks up to c.0.9m in height cover the masonry footings of a rectangular building measuring c.17m east-west by c.6.5m. This may have been a detached guest hall. The area immediately west of this building and south of the gatehouse was a separate court enclosed on the south side by a wall, the footings of which are exposed in places in the top of a low earthen bank extending c.30m WSW from the south west corner of the building to the precinct boundary. The larger area of the outer court to the south east of this is bounded at the southern end by another low but well defined bank which probably covers the foundations of another wall. Other slight, rectilinear earthworks and traces of masonry mark the foundations of a range of buildings at least 45m in length, adjacent and parallel to the precinct boundary on the west side of this larger area. These were probably barns or granaries.

According to the history of the abbots of St Albans, Richard de Parco, who was prior between 1227 and 1244, built a wall along part of the precinct boundary and rebuilt a boundary bank around the whole monastery. Part of a medieval wall, c.187m in length and 1m - 2m in height, still stands alongside Warham Road, marking the western boundary of the precinct south of the gatehouse. Parts of the earthwork boundary are also visible, notably along the north western side of the precinct, to the north of the farmyard which occupies the area on the north side of the gatehouse. Here it runs alongside a hollow way which forks from Warham Road and crosses the stream by a ford. To the south west of the stream, running downslope, it is marked by a ditch c.3m wide which may once have carried water, and an internal bank c.0.5m high. On the opposite side and around the northern end of the precinct it is visible as a bank only. There is another length of bank along the northern end of the western boundary, bordering a track which runs south to meet Langham Road.

All monasteries required a plentiful supply of water to serve the domestic and agricultural needs of the community. At Binham the supply for the claustral buildings and adjacent outer court was evidently obtained from ground and surface water, supplemented by rain water collected from the roofs, and will have been channeled by a system of conduits and drains. Part of a north-south conduit or drain is exposed below and adjacent to the outer parlour at the north end of the west claustral range, and part of a drain is visible leading from the cistern against the south wall of the refectory towards the eastern range. The discovery of an infilled, stone lined well to the south west has also been recorded. Approximately 95m north west of the church, near a modern field drain, there are slight hollows which have the appearance of small, rectangular fish ponds linked by a channel.

Evidence of water management on a larger scale for agricultural and industrial purposes can also be seen on either side of the stream which runs across the northern and eastern parts of the precinct, below the claustral buildings and associated earthwork enclosures. The largest feature is a mill pond on the east side of the precinct. In its present form it has the appearance of an ornamental feature, but around the south eastern end there is a pond bay, visible as a rectilinear scarp up to 0.7m high, which demonstrates that it was originally much larger. Several large blocks of fallen flint masonry along the southern side of the pond, near its north western end, are evidence for a substantial structure or structures on or near the bank. From the north western end of the pond, the stream is embanked slightly along the northern side for a distance of c.75m, then bends sharply north east and west around an earthen platform c.1m in height and 12m wide at the base which is the probable site of the millhouse. A small area of flint masonry is exposed on the north side of the stream opposite this feature, and beyond that is a low earthen bank or dam up to 0.75m in height and 12m wide which continues towards the precinct boundary on the same south west-north east alignment as the platform. To the north east of the millpond, alongside the embanked section of the stream, are the earthwork remains of two fishponds, visible as elongated rectangular hollows, embanked at the south eastern end and separated by a low bank c.10m wide.

All post-medieval and modern buildings in the farmyard on the north side of the gatehouse and entrance, including a Grade II Listed barn and a grain silo, are excluded from the scheduling, together with the surfaces of the car park west of the church and all yards and paths; the concrete surface with drainage channels and inset memorial slabs in the north aisle of the nave of the church; a wooden hut in the same area are also excluded, as are floodlights round the church; inspection chambers in the area of the east end of the church and in the fields to the north east of the church and to the south of the claustral buildings; a drinking trough also to the south of the claustral buildings; a wooden stable in the field immediately to the south of the gatehouse; all post-medieval boundary walls; fences, gates and stiles; the English Heritage information board and hut; although the ground beneath all these features is included. The parish church and the parish cemetery are totally excluded from the scheduling.

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.

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Books and journals
Britton, J, Architectural Antiquities III: Binham Priory Church, (1811), 71,72
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 343-345
Harrod, Henry, Gleanings Among Castles and Covents of Norfolk, (1857), 197-210
Aerial Photography Foundation, Dereham, Ref 161/13; NAU TF9839/S/-, (1978)
Aerial Photography Foundation, Dereham, Ref 161/14 NAU ref TF9839/T/-, (1978)
Edwards, D, NAU TF9830/N/PQA 10, (1980)
Edwards, D, NAU TF9839/K/AEL 8, 9, (1976)
Raby, F. Baillie Reynolds, PK & Sherlock, D, Binham Priory, 1985, draft text of unpublished handbook
typescript, Thurlby, Malcolm, The West Front of Binham Priory and the beginnings of Bar Tracery, (1989)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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