Remains of Blackborough Priory
Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number: 1016483
Date first listed: 04-Jun-1952
Date of most recent amendment: 19-Mar-1999
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference: TF 67334 14087, TF 67381 14004
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
Reasons for Designation
A nunnery was a settlement built to sustain a community of religious women.
Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship,
accommodation and subsistence. The main elements are the church and domestic
buildings arranged around a cloister. This central enclosure may be
accompanied by an outer court and gatehouse, the whole bounded by a precinct
wall, earthworks or moat. Outside the enclosure, fishponds, mills, field
systems, stock enclosures and barns may occur. The earliest English nunneries
were founded in the seventh century AD but most of these had fallen out of use
by the ninth century. A small number of these were later refounded. The tenth
century witnessed the foundation of some new houses but the majority of
medieval nunneries were established from the late 11th century onwards.
Nunneries were established by most of the major religious orders of the time,
including the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Franciscans and
Dominicans. It is known from documentary sources that at least 153 nunneries
existed in England, of which the precise locations of only around 100 sites
are known. Few sites have been examined in detail and as a rare and poorly
understood medieval monument type all examples exhibiting survival of
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.
Blackborough Priory is of interest as one of a group of seven monastic foundations of different orders and varying size located in or immediately adjacent to the Nar Valley, the two nearest being Augustinian priories at Wormegay, some 2.5km to the south west, and at Pentney, 3.5km to the south west. Although comparatively little remains of the priory buildings above ground, the buried remains will retain archaeological evidence relating to the history, organisation and economy of the nunnery, including both the religious life centred on the church and conventual buildings at the heart of the complex, and the domestic and agricultural activities which supported it. The fishponds, constructed for the purpose of breeding and storing stocks of fish to provide a constant and sustainable supply of food, are representative of a type associated characteristically with monasteries and high status residences, and the buried earthworks and the deposits they contain will provide information concerning their original design and the functioning of the system.
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
The monument, which is in two separate areas of protection to the north and
south of Country Drain, includes standing and buried remains of a Benedictine
priory situated adjacent to the southern boundary of Middleton parish and
bordering the fen on the north side of the valley of the River Nar. The
visible remains include a ruined wall, identified as part of the priory
church, and the end wall of another substantial building to the south of it.
The extent of the church and adjoining buildings is indicated by a spread of
building materials on the ground surface, and by recorded finds of coffins,
tiles and architectural fragments. The earthwork remains of fishponds,
although no longer clearly visible, have also been recorded in the south
eastern part of the site.
The priory is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St Catherine and the visible remains are Listed Grade II. It was founded in about 1150 by Roger de Scales, the Lord of the Manor, and his wife Muriel, with an endowment which included lands in the surrounding area. Originally it was a monastery for men, but when the grant was confirmed and extended by Robert de Scales, the son of the founders, it was functioning as a double house, with a community comprising both monks and nuns. Subsequently, in 1200, it was assigned to the sole use of Benedictine nuns, and continued as a nunnery until the Dissolution. According to the surviving records, it housed up to 11 nuns including the prioress, with a priest, and lay servants who in the late 13th century numbered more than 30 men and women. In 1535, shortly before the Dissolution, the clear annual value of the priory holdings was given as 42 pounds, 6 shillings and 7 pence. Following the Dissolution the priory and its lands were leased to James Joskyns, and in 1550 they were granted to the Bishop of Norwich and his successors.
The ruins of what is understood to be the south wall of the nave of the church are located in the first area of protection, approximately 13m to the north east of Priory Farmhouse. This wall measures about 30m in length and up to 5m in height and is built of carstone (local brown sandstone), the only visible features it contains being rows of putlog holes (to hold the horizontal members of the scaffolding used in construction) and sockets for floor joists. Evidence for the foundations of the church and its internal structure will survive elsewhere below the ground surface. The body of the church occupied a level platform which extends approximately 14m north beyond the line of the standing wall, from which point the ground slopes gently downward, and the approximate extent of the eastern end of the church, containing the nuns' choir and the presbytery, is marked by the spread of building stone and mortar on the ground surface. The site of the church was investigated in 1834, when a vault containing three stone and two wooden coffins was discovered, and again in 1851 by Sir Thomas Beevor and Harrod, a local antiquarian, whose reported account implies that the church was cruciform in plan, with transepts to the north and south of a central crossing which divided the main body of the nave from the east end containing the presbytery. Finds made during this investigation included stone coffins in the area of the north transept and fragments of a female effigy from the area of the choir. In 1964 decorated floor tiles and architectural fragments were found during ploughing in the area of the east end of the church.
The conventual buildings, including the chapter house where the daily business of the priory was discussed, the dorter (nuns' dormitory) and the refectory, are believed to have adjoined the church on the south side and were probably ranged around a rectangular cloister. There are no window openings in the surviving church wall because, as on other monastic sites, the lower part backed onto the north alley of the cloister. To the south of the probable area of the cloister, and approximately 57m from the east end of the standing church wall, is the south gable end wall of a substantial medieval building constructed of carstone with limestone dressings, with supporting angle buttresses of which three (east, south east and south west) remain intact. A small lancet window with wide internal splay is set high in the angle of the gable, and on the north face of the wall can be seen the stubs of the east and west walls of the building, which was about 8m wide internally. Part of a floor of black and yellow tiles was found within it in the 1940s.
In the second area of protection, between 25m and 53m further to the south and immediately above the slope down to the marshy bottom of the valley, another dense spread of building materials, including fragments of medieval brick and tile, marks the site of what were probably agricultural, industrial or domestic service buildings attached to the priory. Among the finds recorded from this area are part of a millstone and fragments of 13th and 14th century pottery.
East of these buildings was an array of five fishponds which, when recorded in the 1970s, were visible as parallel, linear hollows aligned north-south and measuring around 0.5m in depth, 26m in length and 7m in width. The two westernmost ponds were connected at their southern end so as to form a `U' shape by an east-west hollow containing a small island, and this was linked in turn to a channel about 5m wide which extended eastwards to the south of the other three ponds, to which it was probably also connected by sluices. These features are still visible in part as slight undulations in the ground surface, and their buried remains will survive below this.
All fences and gates, drinking troughs and their supply pipes, fowl pens and track surfaces are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath 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: 30560
Legacy System: RSM
Books and journals
'Norfolk Archaeology' in Norfolk Archaeology, , Vol. 4, (1855), 353
Green, B, (1998)
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