Wednesday, April 14, 2010
A farm gatehouse and some striking ruins in a field mark the spot where miracles were once performed.
On the scenic north-east Norfolk coast road is the village of Bacton. These days it is better known for its gas terminal bringing in a vital source of energy. In medieval times it was a very different continental import which put the place on the map. On the edge of the village, leading to a modern farm, stands the gateway to Bromholm Priory, once a centre of pilgrimage for royalty and a place renowned for healing the sick and bringing the dead back to life.
Bromholm was founded in 1113 by William Glanvill, and given to Cluniac monks from the great abbey at Castle Acre. For the first century of its existence it was a satellite of that house, a staging post on the pilgrim route to Walsingham. Then, in about 1205, its fortunes changed. When the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade turned, for political reasons, on Constantinople and sacked it they brought back a plethora of treasure, both secular and spiritual. It was to the Norfolk coast that a local priest who had been with the emperor in Constantinople brought back two small pieces of wood. They were, he claimed, pieces of the True Cross. He would give it to the monks on condition he and his sons were admitted to the priory. Some were sceptical, but at last the monastery of Bromholm, poor in worldly goods but rich in faith, believed the priests story and agreed to his terms, and the cross was set up in their church. Tales of miracles were told across the country and pilgrims flocked in search of a cure for their ailments.
A later chronicler claimed 19 people had their sight restored after visiting the priory and seeing the relic, and another 39 had been raised from the dead through its influence. We can be as cynical as we want what was important was that medieval people believed in the power of holy relics; that belief may have boosted their chances of recovery from illness. Just 20 years after the relic arrived at Bromholm, King Henry III visited this coastal retreat. He was so impressed that he granted the priory an annual fair and market as well as some welcome tax breaks. Having broken away from Castle Acres authority, Bromholm was independent. Edward III also paid tribute to the glorious cross of Bromholm and it got an honourable mention in Matthew Pariss tale The Vision of Piers Plowman.
The scope of the place must have been impressive. As well as a church there would have been buildings for the monks and their servants. A monastery was a self-sufficient business as well as a religious entity. No doubt it would have been lavishly decorated. But it was not without problems, not least of which was its proximity to the sea. Records show that in the reign of Richard II, the priory was in crisis. In 1385 a legal document shows that the priory lands had been much wasted by the sea, and their house recently burned, and that if not relieved they would shortly have to cease divine service. By that time there were just 18 brethren at the priory, down from nearly twice that number a century earlier.
A wealthy patron was needed, and he was just down the road. Clement Paston and his family came from the nearby village of that name. By hard work and assiduous land purchases Clement was building a dynasty that would thrive in Norfolk for more than three centuries. The family took a special interest in the priory, the prior being a witness to Clements will in 1419, and after that the Paston clan were patrons and benefactors of the house. During the mid-15th century the Pastons were involved in long-running legal disputes, usually over land. Against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, the family kept up regular correspondence in letters which have been treasured by historians. When John Paston died in London in 1466 his body was brought back to Norfolk and buried lavishly at Bromholm. A specially-hired barber spent five days giving the monks a makeover beforehand, while the Pastons went to extreme lengths to make sure none of the funeral guests went hungry or thirsty. A total of 40 barrels of beer and ale, 15 gallons of wine and several hundred gallons of malt were brewed. Twenty pounds of gold was changed into small coins to throw to poorer people in troubled times the Pastons could always put on a show.
In 1536 the priory was among the smaller religious houses which surrendered tamely to Secretary of State Thomas Cromwell and his commissioners. By that time there were just four religious brethren and 33 servants. Demoralised Prior Lakenham was probably happy with his 20 pension, while Cromwell got the land and the fragments of the True Cross, though the eventual fate of the relic remains a mystery. As with most dissolved monasteries the valuable materials were stripped, its fine bells probably going towards making Henry VIIIs cannon, the rest left to rot or be used as local building material. Whatever was left a century later is said to have been bombarded by Oliver Cromwells artillery from nearby Butt Hill during the Civil War.
The gatehouse is in fairly good repair, but only a few building fragments remain on farmland of the north and south transepts and parts of the chapter house, dormitory and refrectory. Legend has it that from the ruins of the priory runs a tunnel to the site of Gimingham Hall, four miles along the coast. Midway between the two, the tunnel is said to be divided by a huge pair of golden gates. Another passage apparently leads from the hall to the sea.