Birkenhead Priory


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of Birkenhead Priory
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Wirral (Metropolitan Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SJ 32828 88558

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.

Few remains of the original priory at Birkenhead survive but they represent a core area of the former monastery. They will retain important information about the development of the complex, its history and functions both in the standing ruined buildings and in the below ground remains. The survival in its present location is also remarkable and must be due to the presence of the 1821 parish church on the east side of the site. The site is historically important because of the 13th century visits by Edward I in order to launch his campaigns in Wales. These visits show the political importance of the priory, being situated so close to the Welsh marches at that period, even though the complex was relatively small.


The monument includes the ruined and buried remains of part of the 12th century priory together with the ruins and restored tower of the parish church of St Mary. The priory was founded around 1150 by Hamo de Massey of Dunham Massey in Cheshire. The monks followed the Benedictine rule. It was sited on an isolated headland in Wirral and bounded by Wallasey Pool on the north side, the Mersey estuary on the east side and Tranmere Pool on the south side. The monastery owned lands in what is now Birkenhead and had the use of pasture in Bidston, Moreton, Claughton, Saughall and Tranmere. They also claimed rights of fishing and retrieving wreckage in the Mersey. This was a small priory housing only 16 monks at its foundation. However the priory was visited twice by Edward I during his campaign against the Welsh in 1275 and again in 1277. After the Dissolution the estate finally passed into the hands of Ralph Worsley of Lancashire. The buildings fell into ruin with only the chapter house chapel surviving as a local centre of worship. This was superseded by the building of the parish church of St Mary in 1821. The present ruins include the cloister, surrounded by and linking the chapter house, scriptorium, the priory church, the western range, the frater range and the dorter range. The cloister was started in 1150 and was extended and improved until the 14th century. The covered alleys have now disappeared but the extent of the internal garden is still traceable as an earthwork feature. The former chapter house, which is Listed Grade II*, retains much of its 12th century and later medieval fabric, despite restoration in the early 20th century; it remains in ecclesiastical use, and consequently the building is excluded from the scheduling as it is appropriately managed through its Listing status. The priory church has been largely demolished on the south eastern side of the cloister. This replaced an earlier building and was constructed c.1250. Only two sections of stonework on the west side of the church survive as part of the ruins but the buried foundations of the bulk of this church will survive in the area of protection. The west side of the original chancel lies beneath the present remains of St Mary's Church but the east side of the nave has been destroyed within the boundary of the shipyard to the south of the site. The west range probably housed a guest hall, monk's parlour and prior's lodgings. It is now a shell and has lost its floor and roof together with the dividing walls. The frater range, on the northern side of the cloister, contained the buttery and refectory with a guest room attached to the buttery. The dorter range to the east of the cloister was built before 1250, housing the dormitory and latrines for the inmates and included an infirmary. Little remains of these buildings, and the ground on which they stood was used as a burial ground for many years. The parish church of St Mary used to stand to the east of the complex. It was built in 1821 by Thomas Rickman and made redundant in 1975. Parts have been demolished as a safety measure and only the refurbished tower and the two flanking walls with their cast iron window traceries remain. The remains of the church are included as they are an important element of the later history of the site. The ruined priory buildings are Listed Grade I, and the remains of the Church of St Mary are Listed Grade II. The former chapter house, the surfaces of paths and parking areas 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.

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Books and journals
Croasdale, C, Birkenhead Priory, (1994)
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 59
Pevsner, N, Hubbard, E, The Buildings of England: Cheshire, (1971), 81


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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