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Thursday, April 15, 2010
A lonely romantic setting, a history of scandal and even a ghostly legend. What more could you want?
Binham Priory has that as well. Its a peaceful place now, set in undulating North Norfolk countryside a few miles from Wells on the coast. But dont be misled. Binham was once a lively, bustling place, a centre of economic and social significance as well as religion. Not for nothing did television historian Simon Schama use the priory ruins a few years ago as an illustration of the revolutionary effects of the English Reformation. For 450 years it was home to Benedictine monks, as well as serving the people of the nearby village. From the start the priory had powerful supporters; its founder was William the Conquerors nephew, and later supporters included King John. In the opponents corner all too often stood its nearest neighbours plus a cast of bishops and abbots. All that was in the future when, in the closing years of the 10th century, the first stones were laid. Pierre de Valoines came into the land soon after the Domesday Book recorded Binham originally belonging to a freeman named Esket.
The Norman Conquest resulted in a wholesale redistribution of wealth to the kings supporters. Many of them built castles and abbeys partly as a way of showing off their power and wealth. At Binham work began properly around 1104 when Henry I endowed the priory as an offshoot of the great abbey of St Albans. It took more than a century to finish, with stone transported from Northamptonshire by river and sea being added to local materials. Along with the abbey, a parish church was built, complete with a font with carved panels showing scenes from the life of Christ. As at Wymondham in south Norfolk the building thus had a dual use, as both a monastic and parish church. It still fulfils the latter function. The interior of the church and priory would have been richly decorated, as was the style of the Benedictines. Remarkably, for such a large series of buildings, we can only guess at the full nature of the site as so much has been lost it housed very few monks. The founding charter said the minimum contingent should be eight, though there was room for many more.
Benedictine discipline slipped badly at Binham. Problems came from the top, with a series of priors not exactly covering themselves with glory. They quarrelled with the mother church at St Albans, sold the priory silver, got involved in expensive lawsuits and indulged in what is teasingly described as scandalous behaviour. Prior William de Somerton in the 1330s wasted the priorys treasure on the pseudo-science of alchemy turning base metals into gold and got into trouble with Edward I. The king ordered his arrest along with his monks. William enlisted the aid of his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole to resist the bishop of St Albans when he visited; the prior fled to Rome, got himself reinstated, then fled again when he found himself 600 in debt. Then there was William Dyxwell, an eccentric wandering monk who became prior in 1461. Like de Somerton he was deposed, but later reinstated. Too much study drove Prior Alexander de Langley mad. He was kept in solitary confinement and buried in chains. Richard de Parco was a better example. Chronicler Matthew Paris records that from 1227 to 1244 he was hard-working and honest, earning income for the priory from renting land, covering the cloister with lead and completing the west front. He left the monks in the black to the sum of 20.
Although sharing space with the parish church, relations werent always cordial. Many resented the wealth and relative indolence of the monastic orders. In 1433 the bishop of Norwich arrived to clean up the place. He was resisted by the prior and monks, but helped by local people. Perhaps this was a hangover from the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Binham man John Lister led the locals in burning the priory records. In 1212, as Binham was once again in dispute with St Albans, one Robert Fitzwalter laid siege to the priory. An outraged King John sent Norfolk man John de Grey to the rescue with an armed force. By 1539 though the priory was in decline, just six monks remaining. Henry VIIIs commissioners closed it down, and gave the land to Thomas Paston, of the distinguished Norfolk family. He demolished the monastery (leaving the parish church standing) and used rubble and stone to build a house in Wells High Street. His grandson Edward wanted to create for himself a dwelling on the site, but a workman was killed during the building. This was considered a bad omen, and the work was abandoned. Decorations in the church were whitewashed in the new Puritan fashion what Simon Schama called the ardent, coloured noisy world of Catholic England was obliterated.
The Black Monk is supposed to haunt the grounds at night, emerging from a tunnel linking the priory to the shrine at Walsingham three miles away. Legend has it that once a wandering fiddler and his dog investigated the myth they set off together watched by a crowd of people and disappeared without trace on reaching a nearby Bronze Age burial mound. It is now known as Fiddlers Hill. Binham remains an atmospheric spot, particularly when visited in winter.
The area was bought by Norfolk Archaeological Trust in 1933 and excavated for several years in that decade. Recently they have again been digging at Binham in hope of shedding light on this mysterious place.
Today it is managed by English Heritage and the parochial church council.