Castle Acre Priory


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

King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)
Castle Acre
National Grid Reference:
TF 81446 14827

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. The Cluniac order had its origins in the monastic reformations which swept across continental Europe in the tenth century. The reformations which occurred were partly a response to the impact of Viking raids and attacks on established monastic sites in the preceding century but were also a reaction against the corruption and excesses which were increasingly noted amongst earlier establishments. The Cluniacs were amongst the most successful of the new reformed orders that developed. The founding house of Cluny in south-east France was established in AD 910. Here the community obeyed a stringent set of rules which, amongst other things, involved celibacy, communal living and abstention from eating meat. The ideals of the Cluniac reformers passed on to England in the tenth century. Influential Cluniac houses had been established in England by 1077. Once established, Cluniac houses were notable for the strong links they maintained both with the founding house of Cluny in France and also with other houses of their order. Most Cluniac houses in England were established near major towns and they particularly sought locations in valley bottoms within the protection of a nearby castle. Cluniac monasteries are notable for highly decorated, elaborate buildings. Cluniac houses are relatively rare, with some forty-four houses known in England, and all examples exhibiting good survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Castle Acre priory is considered to include some of the finest and most impressive surviving monastic remains in Norfolk and the core of the monument, which is maintained for display to the public, is a valuable educational and recreational amenity. The architectural and decorative details preserved in the upstanding ruins of the church and claustral buildings, and most notably in the west front of the church, provide a striking example of the elaborate style characteristic of Cluniac monasteries, and the wide range of building remains and earthworks surviving within the known boundaries of the monastic precinct illustrates much of the layout of the monastery as a whole and the way in which the life of the monastic community was organised. The standing and buried remains retain archaeological information relating to many aspects of the life, economy and history of the community, in addition to information already obtained from limited excavations on the site. The association of the priory with Castle Acre castle and a Norman planned town, in a location regarded as typical of Cluniac foundations, gives the monument additional historical and archaeological interest, as does the fact that it is one of six religious houses sited along the Nar valley.


Castle Acre priory is located to the south west of the village of Castle Acre and alongside the River Nar, which flows along the southern boundary of the monastic precinct. The monument includes the standing and buried remains of monastic buildings and various associated earthworks within a precinct which is defined on the north east, east and south east sides by the remains of a medieval boundary wall.

The priory is thought to have been founded in or around 1089 by William de Warenne, first Earl of Surrey, as a daughter house of the Cluniac priory of Lewes, which he had also founded and which was the first house of the order to be established in England. It was, however, his son, the second earl, who confirmed the foundation charter. The church and cloister were consecrated by the bishop of Norwich some time between 1146 and 1148. The house was comparatively well endowed, and in the taxation roll of 1291, the clear annual value of the priory holdings was assessed at 215 pounds 14 shillings and 4 pence, although it was recorded two years later as being in debt to the sum of over 666 pounds. The annual value in 1535 was given as 306 pounds, 11 shillings and 4 pence. In the record of a visitation c.1390 the full complement of monks was stated to be 26, although in the previous century the number had sometimes exceeded 30. The priory was dissolved in 1537 and granted by the Crown to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. It then passed successively to Thomas Gresham and Thomas Cecil, later Earl of Exeter, whose son, William, sold it to Sir Edward Coke. Part of the monastic building remained in use as a farmhouse.

The principal entrance to the monastic precinct is through a gatehouse on the north side. The ruins of the church and conventual buildings stand c.116m to the south and south east of the gatehouse, and to the west and south west of these there are remains of outer courts containing other buildings of monastic date, including agricultural and domestic service buildings. Within the part of the precinct which lies east and north east of the church and conventual buildings there is an extensive complex of rectilinear enclosures defined by low earthworks. The channel which supplied water to the monastery and functioned also as the principal drain runs east-west across the precinct to the south of these and the conventual buildings, and beyond this, in the low lying meadow which borders the river, are remains of what are considered to be medieval water management features, including a series of fishponds. It is thought there was also a chapel standing on the site of Abbey Cottage within the north east corner of the precinct, in the angle between Priory Road and South Acre Road c.170m from the gatehouse. Parts of medieval walls believed to be of 15th century date and to be, perhaps, the remains of the chapel, are incorporated in the east gable wall of the cottage, which is Listed Grade II and excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath it, which is within the monastic precinct, is included. The part of the precinct containing the gatehouse, church and conventual buildings, and the buildings of the outer courts is in the care of the Secretary of State.

The gatehouse, which is Listed Grade I, is dated to the late 14th or early 15th century and is now roofless. It is constructed of mortared flint rubble faced with knapped flint and with dressings of moulded and chamfered brick, and is of two storeys, rectangular in plan, with diagonal buttresses at the angles. The outer walls of the lower floor survive intact, with the wide arches of the carriageway to north and south and the smaller arches of a pedestrian entrance to the east of these. A stone carved with the arms of the priory is set in the outer face of the north wall, over the arch of the pedestrian entrance, and above this are four more panels bearing the Royal Arms and the arms of the principal patrons, set over a brick string course at first floor level. In the centre of the wall just above these, the lower part of a small statue niche can also be seen. Within the gatehouse, to the east of the pedestrian entrance, is a porter's lodge lit by rectangular windows in the north, east and south walls and with the remains of a hearth and chimney in the east wall. On the side opposite, alongside the carriage entrance, is a recess lit by a wide window in the west wall and a narrower window to the north; and in the south west angle is an internal turret containing a newel (spiral) stair to the chamber above. The lower part of the walls of this upper chamber also survive, with the sills and jambs of six symmetrically placed rectangular windows. The socket holes for the joists of a timber floor are visible on the inner faces of the north and south walls.

The monastic church, which with the remainder of the standing ruins is Listed Grade I, was the first of the monastic buildings to be completed and retains many original features of late 11th and early 12th century date, as well as evidence of later additions and alterations. It is constructed, like the adjacent conventual buildings, chiefly of mortared flint rubble incorporating some chalk and carstone, with freestone ashlar facings and dressings, but some of the later additions are distinguished by the occasional use of brick in arches and elsewhere. As originally built, it was c.62m in overall length and cruciform in plan, including an aisled nave of seven bays with square towers flanking the main door at the western end, transepts with apsidal chapels to either side of a central crossing, and an apsidal east end of three bays flanked by shorter aisles, also with apsidal chapels. In the 14th century the east end was extended by up to c.10m and rebuilt with a square ended presbytery and south aisle, and the north aisle was subsequently replaced by a larger rectangular chapel, dated to the 15th century. The outlines of the demolished apses, as revealed by excavation, are outlined in concrete in the turf.

Much of the west front survives to almost full height with the original facing and architectural detail intact, and is elaborately ornamented internally and externally in mid-12th century style, with tiers of wall arcading and ornamental string courses. Above the original round-arched west door, the arcading has been truncated to take a large window with pointed arch which is a later insertion dated to the 15th century. The south west tower is also largely intact to a height of three storeys, with an internal newel stair in the south west angle leading to galleries behind arcades at triforium and clerestory levels. Traces of a corresponding stair in the north west tower are also preserved in the north end of the west wall of the church. The windows at clerestory level in the south west tower, which would have been among the last parts of the church to be completed, are of lancet type, with pointed arches, illustrating the changes in architectural style taking place towards the mid- 12th century. On the north face of the tower, above the level of the clerestory arcade, can be seen the sockets for joists of the timber roof of the nave.

Fragmentary remains of decorative architectural detail can also be seen on the inner and outer faces of the ruined walls of the nave and transepts and on the footings of some of the internal piers. The outer walls of the nave aisles stand to varying heights of up to c.5m, and display on their inner faces parts of the attached columns and springing of the aisle vault, with the wide openings of later inserted windows between. The bases of the piers which supported the arcade between the nave and the aisles also survive, but the character of this arcade and the triforium and clerestory arcades above is shown only in the arches of the westernmost bay of the southern arcade, where they survive at all three levels in the north side of the south west tower, together with fragments of the arches of the adjoining bay to the east.

In the crossing to the east of the nave are the bases of the four great piers with multiple attached shafts which supported a central tower. In the two eastern piers the facing is in alternating bands of grey limestone and brown carstone, and the two types of stone are seen used to similar decorative effect in the surviving dressings of the walls of the transepts to north and south. These walls stand in places almost to full height, with original features which include parts of the galleries at triforium and clerestory levels and the internal stairs which led up to them in the eastern angles of the walls, a pair of windows at triforium level in the south wall of the south transept, and a round headed arched door opening in the north wall of the north transept. The door gives access to the remains of a sacristy (repository for vestments and church vessels) of later 12th century date, the foundations of which extend to the north. The apsidal chapel on the east side of the south transept also survives, with part of the groined vault above it, but the corresponding chapel in the north transept is truncated to accommodate the north wall of the later chapel which replaced the north aisle of the original east end of the church.

The eastern part of the church is outlined by low wall footings, except where one tall fragment remains standing in the chapel on the north side. The monks choir, which originally would have been situated in the crossing and the eastern part of the nave, was moved east of the crossing when the presbytery was extended. The footings of part of the screen which separated the choir from the western end of the church are visible between the eastern piers of the crossing, and between the piers of the arcades to the east of them are the footings of the choir stalls.

The conventual buildings, which are dated for the most part to the mid-12th century, are ranged around three sides of a cloister c.31m square which abuts the south side of the church. The footings of the cloister arcade, dated to the late 15th or early 16th century, stand to a height of up to c.1m. The claustral buildings are ruinous, except for parts of the west range which were incorporated in the later farmhouse, but in many places the walls stand to almost full height and display a variety of features.

The western claustral range, which contained apartments for the use of the prior and accommodation for guests above cellars used for storage, comprises an original rectangular block of two storeys, with later additions and alterations of various dates. On the ground floor at the northern end of the original block is a barrel vaulted outer parlour which would have been used for meetings between the monks and laity. In the east wall of this is an entrance from the cloister walk, and in the north wall, adjacent to the south west tower of the church, an external doorway with a small, internally splayed window to the west of it. The round arches of both doorways are decorated with well preserved chevron moulding and there is a decorative string course around the internal face of the wall. Another entrance in the west wall now opens into the vaulted undercroft of a later addition to the building. Above the outer parlour is the prior's chapel, reached by a stair in the south west angle of the wall. The east wall of the chapel includes an arched recess for the altar with an inserted window of late 13th or early 14th date. Other post- 12th century alterations include a canopied sedilia (recessed seat for officiating priests) and two windows in the north wall, all of later 14th century date. There are also remains of 14th century paintings on the walls. The later wing to the west of the outer parlour and chapel, added as an extension to the prior's suite, is dated to the first half of the 14th century. It includes a ground floor of two bays to either side of an east-west internal dividing wall, lit by narrow windows in the north, west and south external walls, and a room above which served as a private inner chamber. At the western end of the north wall of the upper chamber is the blocked opening of a door to a garderobe (privy), the foundations of which can be seen below, running north westwards diagonally from the base of the wall, and evidence for a fireplace can be seen also in the north wall, below a later bow window which replaced it. The ground floor of the original range to the south of the outer parlour and chapel contained the principal entrance to the cloister, represented by a wide arch in the west wall and the remains of a corresponding opening to the east. The western doorway is fronted by a vaulted porch which was built on to it in the later 12th century and remains intact. The walls of the cellars to either side of the entrance passage retain evidence of vaulting and part of one of the columns of a central arcade still stands at the northern end. Above the cellars was the guest hall with a separate chamber over the porch. The standing walls at this level display evidence of extensive alteration in the later medieval period, including the modification of the north end of the hall to create a new chamber block of two floors adjoining the prior's chapel. Surviving features of this later addition include window and door openings of late 14th century or early 15th century type in the west wall, with short passages through to the prior's inner chamber and the chamber over the porch, the remains of fireplaces and chimney in the north wall, and traces of a newel stair in the north east internal angle with a narrow entrance from the cloister at ground level. A narrow passage which abuts the outer face of the west wall of the range at the northern end, is also dated to the late 14th or early 15th century, contained an external stair to the guest hall, and foundations which can be seen running northwards from the entrance to this stairway are remains of a contemporary wall which enclosed a courtyard to the west of the range. In front of the 12th century porch is an outer porch of two storeys which was added in the later 15th or early 16th century. The west (outer) face of this is decorated with flushwork (stone tracery infilled with knapped flint), and blocked openings in the north and south walls at first floor level, above the entrance, are evidence for a gallery which is known to have run through it, connecting the prior's inner chamber at the north west end of the range, where there is a corresponding blocked doorway, to a chamber or chambers at the southern end of the guest hall which no longer survive.

The main part of the south claustral range was occupied by the refectory, with a separate small rectangular room to the east and a kitchen to the west of it, abutting the southern end of the west range. The walls of the refectory stand to a height of between c.1.5m and 3.5m and include the bases of staircases in the south eastern and south western internal angles, and an opening at the western end of the north wall which marks the entrance to the refectory from the cloister. At the eastern end, part of a narrow passage can also be seen in the thickness of the north wall at first floor level. The walls of the kitchen survive to a height of no more than 1m. The foundations of a later, detached kitchen which replaced it, probably when the guest suite in the west range was extended in the 15th century, lie c.2.5m to the south, centred over the main water supply channel and carried above it on a bridge which does not survive, although the stubs of the supporting arches can be seen in the stone lining of the channel beneath. The masonry footings of another rectangular structure on either side of the channel c.12m to the west of this are perhaps the remains of a cistern or fishtank.

The eastern range containing the dorter (monks dormitory) and the chapter house, where the monks met to discuss the daily business of the priory, is c.45m in length. The chapter house is at the northern end, abutting the south wall of the transept, and the interior faces of its north and south walls retain evidence of a barrel vault as well as traces of the tiers of blank arcading with which they were ornamented. The wall across the eastern end, containing the remains of a large window opening, was inserted in the first half of the 14th century to replace the original, apsidal east end, the line of which is marked out in concrete in the ground surface beyond it. Immediately to the south of the chapter house is a wide arch which opens off the cloister onto a broad, shallow flight of stone stairs up to the dorter on the upper floor. Below the dorter was a vaulted undercroft of eight bays to either side of a central arcade, lit by windows in the east wall and with two arched entrances from the cloister on the west side. The square bases of the columns of the central arcade survive, and the outline of some of the arches of the vault are traceable on the west wall. The foundations of several narrow east-west walls which subdivided the interior are also exposed on the ground surface. Two of them enclose the third bay from the north to form a through passage from the southern of the two entrances on the cloister side to a door opening in the opposite, east wall. In the upper walls are the openings of the rows of windows which lit the dorter, most of them showing evidence of alteration in the late 15th century as well as some original details.

The reredorter (latrine block) stands immediately to the south of the east range, and is a rectangular building c.30m in overall length, constructed on an east-west alignment over the water supply channel and a narrower, parallel drain which took water from higher up the main channel to flush the latrines. Both the main channel and the drain are lined with ashlar, and the larger conduit includes remains of the vault which supported the building above. The gable ends of the building and parts of the side walls and a longitudinal partition wall which divides the ground floor above the main conduit from the drain stand almost to full height and display various details of the internal arrangement. The partition wall at ground floor level is pierced by 12 arched openings which would have been backed by wooden partitions to form recesses. Below them are sloping chutes to the drain behind, and in some the brackets which supported seats above the chutes are also preserved. Above this was an upper floor, originally linked to the monks' dorter by a bridge which no longer survives.

The infirmary complex, represented chiefly by low wall footings, lies c.12m east of the east claustral range. The original 12th century infirmary hall and chapel is rectangular, with dimensions of c.20m in length north-south by c.9m wide. At the western end, opposite the passage from the cloister through the undercroft of the east range, there is a door opening with remains of stone jambs, and there are two more door openings in the north and south walls respectively. South of it are the remains of a second hall, thought to be of early 14th century date, with hearths in the eastern and western end walls and door openings in the side walls. Around these two buildings are the foundations of later walls which variously define a communicating passage between them, with courtyards or buildings to either side of it, other passages connecting the earlier hall with the east range and the church, and a passage leading from a door opening in the south wall of the later hall to the remains of a garderobe on the south side of the water channel, c.4m to the east of the reredorter.

In the western part of the monastic precinct, c.16m from the north end of the west range, the remains of another building are visible as earthworks and projecting fragments of flint masonry. These and other buried foundations produce parch marks which have been recorded by aerial photography, showing the outline of an L-shaped building and walls separating the outer area in which it lies from the claustral buildings which are the core of the priory. To the north of this are a 19th century barn and farm buildings which replaced a medieval barn demolished in 1838. The ground beneath the post-medieval buildings is included in the scheduling, although the buildings themselves are not.

To the south of this and c.13m south west of the western claustral range, is a court enclosed on the north, west and south sides by the remains of various agricultural and service buildings which were probably constructed in the 15th century. The course of the water supply channel can be seen as a linear hollow along the north side.

The range on the north side of the court is c.75m in overall length and c.7m wide and includes, at the eastern end, a building thought to have been a granary or storehouse, with walls which survive to a height of up to c.4.5m and display various blocked openings. The building on the west side is c.15.5m in length with a small annexe attached to the southern end, and is divided internally by two cross walls. At the northern end is the base of a circular brick structure with a flue which has been interpreted as part of a corn dryer. On the south side is a building c.47m in length which may have been a malthouse and brewhouse, with a malting kiln in a room to the south and the smaller brick bases and flues of coppers to the east.

The eastern part of the precinct is divided into three areas, each containing earthworks. The boundary between the northern and central parts is marked by a scarp c.1m in height which runs eastwards to the precinct wall from a point c.60m north of the monastic church. The boundary between the central area and the low lying meadow bordering the river to the south is the main water supply channel which is here visible as a linear hollow up to c.9m wide with a slight bank along the north side. The northern area includes a large rectangular platform c.58m east of the gatehouse and the remains of a rectangular enclosure, visible at the western end of the boundary scarp as a hollow c.1m deep and measuring c.44m east-west by c.20m, bordered on the east side by a slight bank and on the south side partly by the footings of a masonry wall which are exposed for distance of c.20m on upper edge of the scarp, and partly by a 19th century wall which continues on the same line and around the western end and probably overlies earlier foundations. The central part to the east and north east of the monastic church and conventual buildings contains earthen terraces, low banks and partly infilled ditches which are visible as linear hollows. Immediately to the north and north east of the church there are two adjoining enclosures, which are almost certainly the site of the monastic cemetery and are defined by scarps and banks which probably cover the remains of masonry walls. Another quadrangular enclosure to the east of the infirmary halls may have been a garden area. The area beyond these is subdivided into rectangular terraces and ditched or banked enclosures which are considered to be the remains of paddocks, gardens and orchards, and within several of these there are rectangular raised platforms, c.0.6m in height and between c.3m by 5m and c.12m by 8m in area, which probably supported timber buildings.

The area to the south contains the earthwork remains of a series of fishponds, now partly infilled and dry, as well as various post-medieval and modern drainage features. The fishponds are visible as three parallel, shallow linear hollows between c.7m and c.9m in width and spaced c.4m apart and, to the west of these, a rectangular hollow measuring c.52m north-south by c.28m, in the north west part of which there is a low rectangular platform. Immediately to the west of this again is a rectangular enclosure defined by ditches on the north, west and east sides. At least one of the linear ponds extends south of a modern drainage ditch towards the southern boundary of the precinct on the bank of the river, to which it would have been connected by sluices to control the flow of water in and out.

The ruined boundary wall stands up to c.3m high in places and can be traced around all the western part of the precinct, running northward c.58m from the gatehouse to Priory Road, then eastwards along the roadside and south alongside South Acre Road to the river. The river forms the southern boundary, and the standing fragments and earthwork remains of the wall extend north westwards alongside it for c.130m; beyond that point the northern side of the river is embanked slightly to a point due south of the western end of the south western court. A field boundary c.28m to the north of the court includes part of a ruined east-west wall c.10m in length which is also believed to be of monastic date.

Excluded from the scheduling are Abbey Cottage, the post-medieval barn and associated farm buildings to the south west of the abbey gatehouse, all post- medieval walls, modern fences, gates, paths and yard surfaces, the remains of the surface of a hard tennis court to the south of Abbey Cottage garden, the surface of the visitor car park, inspection chambers, service poles, waste bins, and English Heritage sign boards, 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.

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Books and journals
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 356-358
Raby, F J E, Baillie Reynolds, P K, Castle Acre Priory, (1986)
Wilcox, R, 'Norfolk Archaeology' in Castle Acre Priory: Excavations 1972-76, , Vol. 37, (1980), 231-276
Armstrong, M, (1780)
Bamford, H, (1996)
copy in HPG file, West, J J, Castle Acre Priory: Notes on lecture by R Wilcox, (1992)
copy in SMR file, Cushion, B, Castle Acre Priory: SMR 4096, (1995)
CUCAP AXA 64, 66, (1969)
Cushion, B, (1995)
Edwards, D, NLA TF 8114/ABR/ASV 13, AEN/DJV 15,
Listing Schedule: TF 8115 11/2 Abbey Cottage,


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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