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West Acre Priory, and square barrow within the precinct

A Scheduled Monument in West Acre, Norfolk

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Latitude: 52.7029 / 52°42'10"N

Longitude: 0.6359 / 0°38'9"E

OS Eastings: 578193.618202

OS Northings: 314954.029232

OS Grid: TF781149

Mapcode National: GBR Q78.KLC

Mapcode Global: WHKQN.RB06

Entry Name: West Acre Priory, and square barrow within the precinct

Scheduled Date: 30 November 1925

Last Amended: 8 November 1994

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1008352

English Heritage Legacy ID: 21325

County: Norfolk

Civil Parish: West Acre

Traditional County: Norfolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Norfolk

Church of England Parish: West Acre All Saints

Church of England Diocese: Norwich


The Priory of St Mary and All Saints, West Acre, is situated immediately to
the south of the parish church of All Saints in West Acre village, in the
valley of the River Nar. The monument comprises a single area containing the
monastic precinct, which extends to north and south of the river and is
enclosed by the remains of a boundary wall. Within the precinct are the
upstanding and earthwork remains of monastic buildings and a variety of
associated features. In the south eastern part, and included in the
scheduling, is a square barrow of much earlier, prehistoric date.

West Acre Priory was founded as a house of Augustinian Canons around or before
1135 by the Lord of the Manor, Ralph de Toni and his family. The priory was
comparatively large and wealthy, with up to 26 canons, although from the later
14th century onward, the recorded numbers never exceeded 20. The original
endowment, which included the manor and church of West Acre, was augmented by
further gifts during the 13th century, and in 1291 the community is listed as
having an annual income of 140 pounds 5s 7d. In the first half of the 15th
century, the income is recorded as 256 pounds 11s. The priory, with its
dependent cell of Great Massingham was dissolved in 1538, and the site, with
the manor of West Acre, was granted by Henry VIII to Mary, Duchess of Richmond
and Somerset for life.

The priory precinct is entered from the north by a gatehouse which still
stands c.10m to the west of the parish church. The remains of the priory
church and the conventual buildings, which are the heart of the monastic
complex, lie on the north side of the river, c.95m south east of the
gatehouse, and the ruins of a separate building stand due south of them,
isolated on the opposite side of the river. The outer court, containing
agricultural buildings and buildings to house domestic services and
industries, such as the granary, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry, occupies
the area to the west of the conventual buildings in the north western part of
the precinct. The remaining outer parts of the precinct to the south and
east, including meadows which slope up from the valley bottom on the southern
side, contain fishponds, water control features and also field boundary
earthworks which are thought to be of monastic date.

The gatehouse, which is Listed Grade I and is included in the scheduling, is
dated to the 14th century and is built chiefly of coursed flint with stone
dressings. The wide entrance arch is surmounted by three coats of arms in
stone, with a lancet window set in the gable above. The bay within is
vaulted with brick infilling. Originally there was a second inner bay to the
south and the south face includes the broken stubs of the east and west
walls, with the springing of the vault to either side of the arch. Above the
arch, the south wall of the upper chamber is of brick with courses of reused
chalk above. The upper chamber is now roofless.

The general outline of the monastic church and adjacent buildings can be
established from fragments which stand above ground, and from substantial
earthworks which mark areas of fallen masonry and the buried remains of walls.
The survival of masonry beneath the earthworks was confirmed and further
details of the plan were revealed by limited excavations carried out in
1927-28. The layout of the buildings and many details of the plan are similar
to those of the Cluniac priory at Castle Acre, c.3km to the east although on
a slightly smaller scale.

The church is c.77m in total length and includes an aisled nave of six bays
with lateral towers at the western end, transepts to north and south of a
central crossing and, at the eastern end, a square-ended presbytery with an
aisle to the south. Part of the south western tower, which is Listed Grade
II*, and a short section of the adjacent wall of the south aisle of the nave
still stand to a height of c.10m and contain medieval features of varying
date, including stone mouldings and blocked round headed and pointed arches.
The west face and towers were added to the original church, probably in the
early 13th century, and the presbytery is also thought to have been extended
during that period. Architectural fragments of 14th century date found in
excavation of the area of the southern transept and presbytery are evidence
for extensive rebuilding or remodelling of the church after a fire in 1286.
Later additions include a Lady Chapel to the north of the presbytery and a
sacristy (a repository for sacred vessels and vestments) to the south of it,
both dated by the excavator to the 15th century.

The conventual buildings are grouped around a cloister c.28m square on the
south side of the church. In the ruined western range, the walls of a large
part of the lower floor remain standing. This lower floor is divided by
interior walls into four apartments and would have been used chiefly for
storage with perhaps an outer parlour. According to the usual monastic
arrangement, the floor above would have contained a guest hall or apartments
used by the prior. The original building is dated to the earlier 12th century,
and the westernmost compartment was evidently modified to accommodate the
later south west tower of the church. The walls display medieval features of
various different dates including a blocked, round headed arched opening with
roll moulding in the west wall of the southernmost compartment, a blocked
pointed arch in the adjacent north wall, and a round headed doorway in the
west wall of the apartment to south of the tower, as well as stone jambs of
various blocked or altered openings. The east range includes the remains of
the chapter house immediately to the south of the south transept, and of the
undercroft of the dorter (dormitory) beyond it. The chapter house, where the
daily business of the priory was discussed, is c.13m long east-west, with an
apsidal east end. Part of the western end of the south wall still stands to a
height of c.8m and includes stone mouldings, as well as evidence of rebuilding
and alteration with blocked openings and reused stone. Some of the earlier
stonework shows signs of burning. The remains of the chapter house are Listed
Grade II. The buried wall footings of the rere-dorter (latrine block) run
east-west across the southern end of the dorter, well beyond the southern
claustral range and close to the river, which will have supplied water for a
drain running beneath the building. The range along the south side of the
cloister will, according to custom, have contained the refectory. The remains
of a separate building, probably the kitchen, lie west of this to the south of
the junction between the west and south ranges. A fragment of the west wall
c.6m long, constructed of dressed stone at the base, stands c.6m from the line
of the southern wall of the claustral range. The base of a south western
angle, almost certainly of the same building, was recorded c.12m west of the
standing fragment in excavations for a swimming pool in 1987. Against the
north wall there was a stone hearth, heavily burnt.

The modern farmhouse, situated west of the south west tower of the priory
church, occupies the probable site of the prior's lodging. The house, which is
externally of 18th century and later date, contains some reused stone but is
not known to include any original walls of monastic date. It is Listed Grade
II and is excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath it is

In the angle between the eastern claustral range and the east end of the
church there is a second court, bordered on the north side by the earthwork
remains of large, masonry structures. By analogy with other monastic sites,
including Castle Acre Priory, these are likely to be the infirmary hall and
ancillary buildings. A fragment of standing wall survives at the southern end
of this complex, alongside the river.

The monastic cemetery almost certainly occupies the area on the opposite side
of the east end of the church, to the north and east of the north transept,
where there is evidence for a walled enclosure. The bank containing the
remains of a wall which forms the western boundary of this enclosure, running
north westwards from the south western angle of the north transept, continues
beyond the enclosure towards the precinct boundary east of the parish church
and divides this northern part of the precinct.

The isolated building south of the river has been dated to the late 14th or
15th century and may have been a detached guest hall or associated with a
school which is recorded in the 15th century as having been attached to the
monastery. It was of two storeys and measures c.33m north east-south west by
12m overall, including a later extension of 4m at the south western end. Parts
of the walls of the middle section stand and display various architectural
features and openings of medieval and early post-medieval date. The original
south west end wall still stands to almost full height and includes a large
window opening with moulded stone jambs at the level of the upper floor. The
building contains a small internal, vaulted cell against the north wall, and
another which is probably a post-medieval insertion within the south west
angle. It is Listed Grade II.

The outer court of the monastery, in the north western part of the precinct,
includes a long range of medieval buildings aligned north-south. At the centre
of these is a late medieval barn built of coursed flint and stone, with outer
walls which remain largely unaltered by post-medieval and modern
modifications. The long walls and south end wall are buttressed and in the
west wall there are two cart entrances with original stone jambs. A detached
gable wall which stands c.25m to the north of this building is all that
remains above ground of another barn which adjoined it end to end. It is of
similar construction, with two broken buttresses on the north face. The
standing building and the detached gable wall are together Listed Grade II*.
The listing is considered appropriate for the future management and protection
of the standing barn, which remains in use and is excluded from the
scheduling, although the ground beneath it is included, as is the detached
gable wall.

To the south of the barn, at a distance of c.5m, are the ruined walls and
earthwork remains of at least two more stone buildings conjoined end to end.
The standing walls, which are Listed Grade II, are chiefly of coursed flint
and chalk, with dressed stone quoins and mouldings. They display blocked
openings and other features of medieval or later date, including an arched
doorway with stone jambs in the south end of the wall of the northern section.
The ground surface to the east of the buildings is uneven and probably
contains foundations of other structures below the surface. Towards the
southern end of the range, earthworks up to 1m in height show the outline of
an adjoining building extending to the west at right angles. The line of the
south wall of this extension is continued westwards by a slight bank and a
scarp. The north-south line of the range as a whole is continued at either end
by other features. From the southern end of the buildings, a bank containing
masonry extends southward to the river and beyond the detached gable wall,
running northwards to the precinct boundary, there is a slight bank with a
pronounced scarp to the east.

The supply of water needed for sanitation, to feed the fishponds and to
service the activities of the outer court, was an important factor in the
siting of medieval monasteries, and the precinct at West Acre includes several
large scale water control features of medieval date. Chief of these is the
river itself, which runs here in a canal to the north of its original course
in the valley bottom. The channel is steep and quite deeply dug in places and
the sides have been banked up artificially at the shallower points.

On the north side of the river, in the area to the east of the conventual
buildings, there is a series of fishponds aligned parallel to each other. They
are linked by channels c.4m wide, now partly infilled, and each is also
connected to the river by a short channel at the south eastern end. Sluices
will have controlled the flow of water to, from and between them. The
easternmost pond, near the eastern boundary of the precinct, is largely silted
and visible as a rectangular, damp hollow measuring c.50m north west-south
east by 18m north east-south west, with a smaller, connected pond at the north
western end. Its sides are retained by low banks. A second large pond, which
measures c.40m in length by c.30m and still contains water, lies c.55m to the
west of the first, and a shallow depression in the ground surface between them
marks the site of a third and smaller pond. Another set of fishponds is
located c.140m south west of these, on the edge of the water meadows on the
far side of the river and adjacent to the isolated building. The ponds are
visible, particularly from the air, as a series of three or four slight,
rectangular hollows measuring c.20m-25m in length and aligned north east-south
west and they have been plotted from air photographs. Parts of the channels
which fed and drained them and linked them to the river can still be traced
alongside a network of later water meadow drains.

Earthworks further to the south formed part of an extensive system of drainage
and water control. A large ditch, measuring c.18m wide and up to 1.6m deep,
runs parallel to the eastern boundary of the precinct for a distance of c.180m
from a point c.50m south of the crossing of the river and the precinct
boundary, then curves south westwards, following the lower edge of the valley
slope and skirting the water meadows. On the down slope (WNW) side of this
ditch is a bank c.0.5m-0.75m high. A westward branching extension links the
eastern part to a later drain. Run-off from the slope above, to the south
east, was carried down from the precinct wall by another ditch of similar
width. The precinct to the east of the ditch is divided by two field boundary
earthworks, both running east-west and each comprising a bank c.4m wide at the
base and 0.5m high, with a ditch 2m wide to the north of it.

The remains of a boundary wall are clearly visible along the west, south and
east sides of the precinct as a bank which runs along or just within modern
field boundaries. The bank measures between 4m and 8m in width at the base,
and up to 1m in height, and can be seen in many places to contain the footings
of a wall of flint and chalk. On the north side of the precinct, the boundary
is aligned roughly east-west to either end of the parish church. To the west
of the church, the line is followed by later walls of flint, brick and reused
stone which are thought to overlie earlier foundations and which are included
in the scheduling. A short length of wall runs from the south west corner of
the church to the south east corner of the gatehouse, and a longer length runs
westwards from the south west corner of the gatehouse to the north west corner
of the precinct. East of the church, the line is marked by a low bank except
at the western end, and adjacent to the church. Here it runs through a modern
churchyard extension, where the foundations of a flint wall have been
recorded, but no earthwork is visible. The churchyard extension is still in
use and is therefore not included in the scheduling. The bank immediately to
the west of the churchyard boundary tops a steep scarp c.2m high to the north,
and east of this it is bordered on the north side by a hollow way c.7m wide,
which is also visible as an earthwork in pasture. In the area between the
scarp and the hollow way to the south and the modern field boundary to the
north, there are three closes, defined by earthen banks. Along the modern
field boundary there is a more substantial bank overlooking another hollow way
which contains the modern road, and it is probable that this defines a later
extension of the monastic precinct.

The prehistoric square barrow which lies within the monastic precinct is
prominently sited on a natural hillock on the south side of the valley,
overlooking the river. One of the later field boundary earthworks, comprising
a linear bank and ditch, runs c.9m to the west of it. The barrow is visible as
a roughly square earthen mound. Standing to a height of c.0.6m and covering an
area c.13m across, within a rectangular enclosure defined by a ditch c.3m wide
and an outer bank c.0.25m high and 3m wide at the base. The ditch, from which
earth was dug for the construction of the mound, has become largely infilled
but is marked by a hollow c.0.2m deep. The enclosure has overall dimensions of
c.22m square.

In addition to the farmhouse and the medieval barn, Abbey Farm Cottage on the
east side of the precinct is excluded from the scheduling, together with all
outbuildings, farm buildings, sheds and connected structures other than those
which form part of the medieval monastic complex and have been described as
included above. Also excluded are post-medieval: garden walls and a swimming
pool to the south and south east of the farmhouse; all driveways and modern
track and yard surfaces; various service poles and their support cables to the
north east of the house and in the farmyard; a petrol pump and tank in the
farm yard and an adjacent raised tank with supports; a sandpit; climbing frame
and other play apparatus in a paddock in the north west part of the monument;
a cricket pavilion and cricket pitch on the west side of the precinct; the
base and supports for seating in an outdoor auditorium south west of the
isolated building south of the river; a modern water wheel alongside the weir
to the south of the farmhouse and garden and modern timber footbridges across
the river and all modern boundary fences and gates, although the ground
beneath all these buildings and features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

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. Some 225
of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The
Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of
canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they
came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to
distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th
century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running
almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in
parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their
revenue. The Augustinians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval
life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

West Acre Priory is one of the larger monastic foundations in Norfolk and one
of five religious houses sited along the Nar Valley, including two others of
the Augustinian order. The monastic precinct, within boundaries which remain
virtually intact, contains a wide variety of structural remains and features,
many of which have been disturbed very little by later building, landscaping
or agriculture. The standing remains of buildings in the outer court survive
particularly well, and the excavations of the 1920s, while limited in scope
and on a small scale, have shown something of the nature and quality of the
remains which are preserved below the present ground surface. The monument
illustrates the general layout and organisation of the monastery as a whole
and will retain important archaeological information concerning many different
aspects of the life and economy of the monastic community and the history of
the site, up to and including the dissolution and the subsequent dismantling
and destruction of most of the buildings.

Square barrows are funerary monuments of the Middle Iron Age, most examples
dating from the period between c.500 BC and c.50 BC. The majority of these
monuments are found in the area between the River Humber and the southern
slopes of the North Yorkshire Moors but a wider distribution has also been
identified, principally through aerial photography, spreading through the
river valleys of the Midlands and south Essex. Around 200 square barrow
cemeteries have been recorded; in addition, a further 250 sites consisting of
single barrows or small groups of barrows have been identified.
Square barrows, which may be square or rectangular, were constructed as
earthen mounds surrounded by a ditch and covering one or more bodies. Slight
banks around the outer edge of the ditch have been noted in some examples. The
main burial is normally central and carefully placed in a rectangular or oval
grave pit, although burials placed on the ground surface below the mound are
also known.
A number of different types of burial have been identified, accompanied by
grave goods which vary greatly in range and type. The most elaborate include
the dismantled parts of a two-wheeled vehicle placed in the grave with the
body of the deceased.
Ploughing and intensive land use since prehistoric times have eroded and
levelled most square barrows and very few remain as upstanding monuments,
although the ditches and grave pits, with their contents, will survive beneath
the ground surface. The different forms of burial and the variations in the
type and range of artefacts placed in the graves provide important information
on the beliefs, social organisation and material culture of these Iron Age
communities and their development over time. All examples of square barrows
which survive as upstanding earthworks, and a significant proportion of the
remainder, are considered of national importance and worthy of protection.

The square barrow included within the precinct of West Acre Priory survives
very well as an earthwork and, in a region where very few monuments of this
type have been recorded, it is of considerable interest. It will contain
archaeological information of particular importance for the study of the Iron
Age population of north west Norfolk

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 402,403
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 179
Pevsner, N, Wilson, B, The Buildings of England: Norfolk 2: North-West and South, (2002), 371
Pevsner, N, Wilson, B, The Buildings of England: Norfolk 2: North-West and South, (2002), 372
Fairweather, F H, Bradfer-Lawrence, H L, 'Norfolk Archaeology' in The Priory Of St Mary And All Saints, Westacre, (1929), 359-394
Fairweather, F H, Bradfer-Lawrence, H L, 'Norfolk Archaeology' in The Priory Of St Mary And All Saints, Westacre, (1929), 373
Edwards, D, NAU TF 7815/ABR/DJW9, TF7815/AH/Z14,
Edwards, D, NAU TF 7815/AJ/CV1, TF7815/AJ/CV3,
Edwards, D, NAU TF 7815/R/AUG10, (1984)
NAR TF 71 SE 1,
Notes on watching brief; sketch plan, 3881 Westacre, Priory of St Mary and All Saints, (1987)
Report on watching brief, 3881 Westacre, Priory of St Mary and All Saints, (1993)

Source: Historic England

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