In the Middle Ages monasteries and castles dominated the English landscape If you want to step back into this world there is no better place in Norfolk than Castle Acre.

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It's both a castle and a monastery?

The village five miles from Swaffham has a good example of both within walking distance. The castle is in a greater state of disrepair but the priory gives a fascinating insight into a culture that was destroyed in the 16th century. It is a ruin now but for 500 years it was splendidly wealthy dominating the area along with the castle. The modern visitor needs imagination to conjure a scene of bustling activity. Monks in cloisters, in the infirmary baking bread, brewing beer, the prior in his comfortable fire lit and colourfully decorated apartments greeting important guests and treating them in style. There was little aesthetic hardship here, it looks as if the monks, at least those high up in the hierarchy, led a relatively good life. Castle Acre was not one of the more disciplined monasteries which meant not everyone was upset when it all came crashing down in 1537.

Surely monks led a hard life of pure spirituality?

It all depended on the order. The self denying Cistercians buried themselves in the middle of nowhere at remote sites like Fountains, in Yorkshire orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans shunned property and lived off alms. But the Cluniacs who came earlier took a different view, indeed these later orders were a direct response to the supposed laxity of the establishment. The great abbey of Cluny in Burgundy was famous for its splendour and elaborate rituals. It was here that William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada were inspired to bring a little bit of France to England. Warenne had fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings and was rewarded by being made Earl of Surrey. His main seat was at Lewes in Sussex already home to castle and priory. In the 1080s he developed his Norfolk lands. After beginning work on the castle he transferred monks from Sussex to Castle Acre and work began on the priory.

Who paid for all this?

Warenne and his successors granted land to the priory. Its prosperity came from renting this land and also income from churches affiliated to the community including Acre Methwold and Trunch in Norfolk. Other benefactors added further livings. The other factor which boosted Castle Acre was its position on the ancient Roman route the Peddars Way and the increasing number of pilgrims on their way to Walsingham. From the original church begun in the late 11th century the priory grew over the following centuries. Much of the work was completed in the mid 12th century when the covered cloisters were added.

The prior's house was remodelled so that it resembled a substantial manor house complete with private chapel. Unsurprisingly this part of the complex was still lived in following the suppression of the monastery. What we can't entirely envisage today is the bright colours that would have been on show. The Cluniacs made great use of elaborate decoration which you can still see in the stonework of the surviving west front of the church. Even such places as the Chapter House where the monks would meet to discuss business would have been brightly furnished.

How many monks lived there?

Numbers fluctuated with the times. An original complement in 1079 of 32 monks and a prior was maintained consistently until the late 13th century when the priory got into debt. After that it became harder to find recruits who were attracted to the more modern orders of Dominicans and Franciscans, while events such as the Black Death of the 1340s depressed numbers. Discipline was a problem in 1351, the king ordered the arrest of some Castle Acre monks who had spurned the habit of their order and were vagabonds.

A century earlier the prior was in trouble with the order's headquarters at Cluny for defying summonses to attend meetings. Prior William of Shoreham actually fortified the monastery against the motherhouse at Lewes with the support of the earl of Surrey when his appointment was under threat. The priory was in trouble with the king when war broke out with France, as an order controlled from that country it was suspect and was forced to pay large fines to placate royal hostility.

A chequered history

Despite a renaissance in religious feeling in the early 1500s which boosted the number of monks at Castle Acre the writing was on the wall. Protestants were already questioning the role of monasteries when Henry VIII's marital difficulties led to a break with Rome. In a land hungry age avaricious eyes coveted the wealth of the priories. What began as a long needed reform of their activities soon turned to suppression. Two of the hardest men of the Tudor age which is really saying something.

Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Howard Duke of Norfolk did a deal whereby Norfolk got Castle Acre while Cromwell took Lewes. A mixture of bribery and coercion did the rest. By the time Castle Acre surrendered on November 22 1537 there were only 10 monks and a prior left. They were luckier than many who were turned out.

Norfolk paid them a pension, Cromwell's commissioners pulled down the church and cloisters its stones no doubt being used for local buildings while pews turned up in various local churches

So it was left to rot?

Norfolk took little interest and soon sold the land to financier Thomas Gresham. Famed lawyer Sir Edward Coke attained the site in 1615. Never one to resist a pun when King James I took umbrage at his growing estates he quipped, "But my lord tis only an acre I have acquired". His descendants the earls of Leicester still own the land although it has been in the care of the state since 1927. Castle Acre priory and castle are maintained by English Heritage

This attractive village popular with walkers also has a well preserved castle bailey gate
Telephone 01760 755394 website www.english-heritage.org.uk

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