Norfolk signs: The site where a dead saint’s arm was once an attraction
PUBLISHED: 09:56 29 March 2020 | UPDATED: 09:57 29 March 2020
Almost 500 years have passed since Henry VIII dissolution of the monasteries upended England’s religious landscape. DR ANDREW TULLETT explores the story behind one of them, captured on its local village sign.
It is not the castle that graces the sign at Castle Acre, but Castle Acre Priory.
A small community of Cluniac monks was given a chapel in the outer bailey of the original fortified site; but this community grew quickly, prompting the movement of monks to the present site of the priory.
The castle had been built by William de Warenne in the 1070s.
William fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and had been granted many estates in recognition of his support: he was later created Earl of Surrey.
William de Warenne introduced the Benedictine Order of Cluny to England when he established the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes in Sussex in 1077.
He had been inspired to do this after a pilgrimage to Rome, in which he and his wife Gundred had visited Cluny Priory in France.
William died on June 24, 1088 after sustaining injuries on the battlefield. He is buried, with his wife, at the Priory he founded in Lewes.
William’s son, also called William, began the construction of Castle Acre Priory between 1087 and 1089; but it took many more years for the entire site to be developed.
The church and cloisters were not completed until after the death of this second Earl of Surrey on 11th May 1138: he too was interred at Lewes Priory.
The building was consecrated sometime between 1146 and 1148 by the Bishop of Norwich, around the time of the death of the third Earl of Surrey - the third William de Warenne - who was killed on 6 January 1148, during the Battle of Mount Cadmus, whilst accompanying King Louis VII of France on the Second Crusade.
The number of monks living at the priory is recorded as having been 32 in 1276 and 26 in 1390. The priory was dedicated to St Mary, St Peter, and St Paul.
In common with many monasteries of the day, Castle Acre Priory boasted several relics, including the arm of St Philip.
This would have been an added attraction for pilgrims visiting the priory as part of their pilgrimage to the shrine at Walsingham.
The document surrendering the priory to King Henry VIII, during the dissolution of the monasteries, was signed by the last prior, Thomas Malling, and 10 other monks, on November 22, 1537.
John Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, held the estate for a time, during which materials from the priory site started to be removed to be used on constructions elsewhere.
It was sold to Sir Thomas Gresham in 1558. Later, in 1615, it was bought by Sir Edward Coke: it remains in the same family today.
Sir Edward’s great-great-great-grandson, Thomas Coke, was made Earl of Leicester in 1744.
The present owner, also named Thomas Coke, is the 8th Earl of Leicester. The property has been under the care of English Heritage since 1984.
The village sign at Castle Acre shows several buildings at the priory as they would have looked when complete.
Below the name of the village, and either side of a member of the Cluniac Order, two shields are on display.
The shield on the right is that of the current owner, the Earl of Leicester.
The shield on the left is copied from one of several that are displayed on the Gatehouse to the Priory.
The sign was made by Harry Carter of Swaffham.
A plaque is attached to the supporting post which reads, ‘To commemorate the Festival of Britain 1951. The Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 1953. Refurbished in Honour of Her Golden Jubilee 2002 & Diamond Jubilee 2012’.
-Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk’s 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project. He now gives presentations on the topic, and anyone looking for a speaker can contact him at email@example.com. For more details of that and Norfolk’s other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook, or search for “Norfolk on a stick” on www.edp24.co.uk.