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Castle Acre Priory

A Scheduled Monument in Castle Acre, Norfolk

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Latitude: 52.7005 / 52°42'1"N

Longitude: 0.6841 / 0°41'2"E

OS Eastings: 581457.457872

OS Northings: 314799.396662

OS Grid: TF814147

Mapcode National: GBR Q7B.RRM

Mapcode Global: WHKQP.GDZ3

Entry Name: Castle Acre Priory

Scheduled Date: 15 March 1937

Last Amended: 31 January 1997

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1015870

English Heritage Legacy ID: 21416

County: Norfolk

Civil Parish: Castle Acre

Built-Up Area: Castle Acre

Traditional County: Norfolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Norfolk

Church of England Parish: Castle Acre St James

Church of England Diocese: Norwich


Castle Acre priory is located to the south west of the village of Castle Acre
and alongside the River Nar, which flows along the southern boundary of the
monastic precinct. The monument includes the standing and buried remains of
monastic buildings and various associated earthworks within a precinct which
is defined on the north east, east and south east sides by the remains of a
medieval boundary wall.

The priory is thought to have been founded in or around 1089 by William de
Warenne, first Earl of Surrey, as a daughter house of the Cluniac priory of
Lewes, which he had also founded and which was the first house of the order to
be established in England. It was, however, his son, the second earl, who
confirmed the foundation charter. The church and cloister were consecrated by
the bishop of Norwich some time between 1146 and 1148. The house was
comparatively well endowed, and in the taxation roll of 1291, the clear annual
value of the priory holdings was assessed at 215 pounds 14 shillings and 4
pence, although it was recorded two years later as being in debt to the sum of
over 666 pounds. The annual value in 1535 was given as 306 pounds, 11
shillings and 4 pence. In the record of a visitation c.1390 the full
complement of monks was stated to be 26, although in the previous century the
number had sometimes exceeded 30. The priory was dissolved in 1537 and
granted by the Crown to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. It then passed
successively to Thomas Gresham and Thomas Cecil, later Earl of Exeter, whose
son, William, sold it to Sir Edward Coke. Part of the monastic building
remained in use as a farmhouse.

The principal entrance to the monastic precinct is through a gatehouse on the
north side. The ruins of the church and conventual buildings stand c.116m to
the south and south east of the gatehouse, and to the west and south west of
these there are remains of outer courts containing other buildings of monastic
date, including agricultural and domestic service buildings. Within the part
of the precinct which lies east and north east of the church and conventual
buildings there is an extensive complex of rectilinear enclosures defined by
low earthworks. The channel which supplied water to the monastery and
functioned also as the principal drain runs east-west across the precinct to
the south of these and the conventual buildings, and beyond this, in the low
lying meadow which borders the river, are remains of what are considered to be
medieval water management features, including a series of fishponds. It is
thought there was also a chapel standing on the site of Abbey Cottage within
the north east corner of the precinct, in the angle between Priory Road and
South Acre Road c.170m from the gatehouse. Parts of medieval walls believed to
be of 15th century date and to be, perhaps, the remains of the chapel, are
incorporated in the east gable wall of the cottage, which is Listed Grade II
and excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath it, which
is within the monastic precinct, is included. The part of the precinct
containing the gatehouse, church and conventual buildings, and the buildings
of the outer courts is in the care of the Secretary of State.

The gatehouse, which is Listed Grade I, is dated to the late 14th or early
15th century and is now roofless. It is constructed of mortared flint rubble
faced with knapped flint and with dressings of moulded and chamfered brick,
and is of two storeys, rectangular in plan, with diagonal buttresses at the
angles. The outer walls of the lower floor survive intact, with the wide
arches of the carriageway to north and south and the smaller arches of a
pedestrian entrance to the east of these. A stone carved with the arms of the
priory is set in the outer face of the north wall, over the arch of the
pedestrian entrance, and above this are four more panels bearing the Royal
Arms and the arms of the principal patrons, set over a brick string course at
first floor level. In the centre of the wall just above these, the lower part
of a small statue niche can also be seen. Within the gatehouse, to the east of
the pedestrian entrance, is a porter's lodge lit by rectangular windows in the
north, east and south walls and with the remains of a hearth and chimney in
the east wall. On the side opposite, alongside the carriage entrance, is a
recess lit by a wide window in the west wall and a narrower window to the
north; and in the south west angle is an internal turret containing a newel
(spiral) stair to the chamber above. The lower part of the walls of this upper
chamber also survive, with the sills and jambs of six symmetrically placed
rectangular windows. The socket holes for the joists of a timber floor are
visible on the inner faces of the north and south walls.

The monastic church, which with the remainder of the standing ruins is
Listed Grade I, was the first of the monastic buildings to be completed and
retains many original features of late 11th and early 12th century date, as
well as evidence of later additions and alterations. It is constructed, like
the adjacent conventual buildings, chiefly of mortared flint rubble
incorporating some chalk and carstone, with freestone ashlar facings and
dressings, but some of the later additions are distinguished by the occasional
use of brick in arches and elsewhere. As originally built, it was c.62m in
overall length and cruciform in plan, including an aisled nave of seven bays
with square towers flanking the main door at the western end, transepts with
apsidal chapels to either side of a central crossing, and an apsidal east end
of three bays flanked by shorter aisles, also with apsidal chapels. In the
14th century the east end was extended by up to c.10m and rebuilt with a
square ended presbytery and south aisle, and the north aisle was subsequently
replaced by a larger rectangular chapel, dated to the 15th century. The
outlines of the demolished apses, as revealed by excavation, are outlined in
concrete in the turf.

Much of the west front survives to almost full height with the original facing
and architectural detail intact, and is elaborately ornamented internally and
externally in mid-12th century style, with tiers of wall arcading and
ornamental string courses. Above the original round-arched west door, the
arcading has been truncated to take a large window with pointed arch which is
a later insertion dated to the 15th century. The south west tower is also
largely intact to a height of three storeys, with an internal newel stair in
the south west angle leading to galleries behind arcades at triforium and
clerestory levels. Traces of a corresponding stair in the north west tower are
also preserved in the north end of the west wall of the church. The windows at
clerestory level in the south west tower, which would have been among the last
parts of the church to be completed, are of lancet type, with pointed arches,
illustrating the changes in architectural style taking place towards the mid-
12th century. On the north face of the tower, above the level of the
clerestory arcade, can be seen the sockets for joists of the timber roof of
the nave.

Fragmentary remains of decorative architectural detail can also be seen on the
inner and outer faces of the ruined walls of the nave and transepts and on the
footings of some of the internal piers. The outer walls of the nave aisles
stand to varying heights of up to c.5m, and display on their inner faces parts
of the attached columns and springing of the aisle vault, with the wide
openings of later inserted windows between. The bases of the piers which
supported the arcade between the nave and the aisles also survive, but the
character of this arcade and the triforium and clerestory arcades above is
shown only in the arches of the westernmost bay of the southern arcade, where
they survive at all three levels in the north side of the south west tower,
together with fragments of the arches of the adjoining bay to the east.

In the crossing to the east of the nave are the bases of the four great piers
with multiple attached shafts which supported a central tower. In the two
eastern piers the facing is in alternating bands of grey limestone and brown
carstone, and the two types of stone are seen used to similar decorative
effect in the surviving dressings of the walls of the transepts to north and
south. These walls stand in places almost to full height, with original
features which include parts of the galleries at triforium and clerestory
levels and the internal stairs which led up to them in the eastern angles of
the walls, a pair of windows at triforium level in the south wall of the south
transept, and a round headed arched door opening in the north wall of the
north transept. The door gives access to the remains of a sacristy (repository
for vestments and church vessels) of later 12th century date, the foundations
of which extend to the north. The apsidal chapel on the east side of the
south transept also survives, with part of the groined vault above it, but the
corresponding chapel in the north transept is truncated to accommodate the
north wall of the later chapel which replaced the north aisle of the original
east end of the church.

The eastern part of the church is outlined by low wall footings, except where
one tall fragment remains standing in the chapel on the north side. The monks
choir, which originally would have been situated in the crossing and the
eastern part of the nave, was moved east of the crossing when the presbytery
was extended. The footings of part of the screen which separated the choir
from the western end of the church are visible between the eastern piers of
the crossing, and between the piers of the arcades to the east of them are the
footings of the choir stalls.

The conventual buildings, which are dated for the most part to the mid-12th
century, are ranged around three sides of a cloister c.31m square which abuts
the south side of the church. The footings of the cloister arcade, dated to
the late 15th or early 16th century, stand to a height of up to c.1m. The
claustral buildings are ruinous, except for parts of the west range which were
incorporated in the later farmhouse, but in many places the walls stand to
almost full height and display a variety of features.

The western claustral range, which contained apartments for the use of the
prior and accommodation for guests above cellars used for storage, comprises
an original rectangular block of two storeys, with later additions and
alterations of various dates. On the ground floor at the northern end of the
original block is a barrel vaulted outer parlour which would have been used
for meetings between the monks and laity. In the east wall of this is an
entrance from the cloister walk, and in the north wall, adjacent to the south
west tower of the church, an external doorway with a small, internally splayed
window to the west of it. The round arches of both doorways are decorated with
well preserved chevron moulding and there is a decorative string course around
the internal face of the wall. Another entrance in the west wall now opens
into the vaulted undercroft of a later addition to the building. Above the
outer parlour is the prior's chapel, reached by a stair in the south west
angle of the wall. The east wall of the chapel includes an arched recess for
the altar with an inserted window of late 13th or early 14th date. Other post-
12th century alterations include a canopied sedilia (recessed seat for
officiating priests) and two windows in the north wall, all of later 14th
century date. There are also remains of 14th century paintings on the walls.
The later wing to the west of the outer parlour and chapel, added as an
extension to the prior's suite, is dated to the first half of the 14th
century. It includes a ground floor of two bays to either side of an east-west
internal dividing wall, lit by narrow windows in the north, west and south
external walls, and a room above which served as a private inner chamber. At
the western end of the north wall of the upper chamber is the blocked opening
of a door to a garderobe (privy), the foundations of which can be seen below,
running north westwards diagonally from the base of the wall, and evidence for
a fireplace can be seen also in the north wall, below a later bow window
which replaced it. The ground floor of the original range to the south of the
outer parlour and chapel contained the principal entrance to the cloister,
represented by a wide arch in the west wall and the remains of a corresponding
opening to the east. The western doorway is fronted by a vaulted porch which
was built on to it in the later 12th century and remains intact. The walls of
the cellars to either side of the entrance passage retain evidence of vaulting
and part of one of the columns of a central arcade still stands at the
northern end. Above the cellars was the guest hall with a separate chamber
over the porch. The standing walls at this level display evidence of extensive
alteration in the later medieval period, including the modification of the
north end of the hall to create a new chamber block of two floors adjoining
the prior's chapel. Surviving features of this later addition include window
and door openings of late 14th century or early 15th century type in the west
wall, with short passages through to the prior's inner chamber and the chamber
over the porch, the remains of fireplaces and chimney in the north wall, and
traces of a newel stair in the north east internal angle with a narrow
entrance from the cloister at ground level. A narrow passage which abuts the
outer face of the west wall of the range at the northern end, is also dated to
the late 14th or early 15th century, contained an external stair to the guest
hall, and foundations which can be seen running northwards from the entrance
to this stairway are remains of a contemporary wall which enclosed a courtyard
to the west of the range. In front of the 12th century porch is an outer porch
of two storeys which was added in the later 15th or early 16th century.
The west (outer) face of this is decorated with flushwork (stone tracery
infilled with knapped flint), and blocked openings in the north and south
walls at first floor level, above the entrance, are evidence for a gallery
which is known to have run through it, connecting the prior's inner chamber at
the north west end of the range, where there is a corresponding blocked
doorway, to a chamber or chambers at the southern end of the guest hall which
no longer survive.

The main part of the south claustral range was occupied by the refectory, with
a separate small rectangular room to the east and a kitchen to the west of it,
abutting the southern end of the west range. The walls of the refectory stand
to a height of between c.1.5m and 3.5m and include the bases of staircases in
the south eastern and south western internal angles, and an opening at the
western end of the north wall which marks the entrance to the refectory from
the cloister. At the eastern end, part of a narrow passage can also be seen in
the thickness of the north wall at first floor level. The walls of the kitchen
survive to a height of no more than 1m. The foundations of a later, detached
kitchen which replaced it, probably when the guest suite in the west range was
extended in the 15th century, lie c.2.5m to the south, centred over the main
water supply channel and carried above it on a bridge which does not survive,
although the stubs of the supporting arches can be seen in the stone lining of
the channel beneath. The masonry footings of another rectangular structure on
either side of the channel c.12m to the west of this are perhaps the remains
of a cistern or fishtank.

The eastern range containing the dorter (monks dormitory) and the chapter
house, where the monks met to discuss the daily business of the priory, is
c.45m in length. The chapter house is at the northern end, abutting the south
wall of the transept, and the interior faces of its north and south walls
retain evidence of a barrel vault as well as traces of the tiers of blank
arcading with which they were ornamented. The wall across the eastern end,
containing the remains of a large window opening, was inserted in the first
half of the 14th century to replace the original, apsidal east end, the line
of which is marked out in concrete in the ground surface beyond it.
Immediately to the south of the chapter house is a wide arch which opens off
the cloister onto a broad, shallow flight of stone stairs up to the dorter on
the upper floor. Below the dorter was a vaulted undercroft of eight bays to
either side of a central arcade, lit by windows in the east wall and with two
arched entrances from the cloister on the west side. The square bases of the
columns of the central arcade survive, and the outline of some of the arches
of the vault are traceable on the west wall. The foundations of several narrow
east-west walls which subdivided the interior are also exposed on the ground
surface. Two of them enclose the third bay from the north to form a through
passage from the southern of the two entrances on the cloister side to a door
opening in the opposite, east wall. In the upper walls are the openings of the
rows of windows which lit the dorter, most of them showing evidence of
alteration in the late 15th century as well as some original details.

The reredorter (latrine block) stands immediately to the south of the
east range, and is a rectangular building c.30m in overall length,
constructed on an east-west alignment over the water supply channel and a
narrower, parallel drain which took water from higher up the main channel to
flush the latrines. Both the main channel and the drain are lined with ashlar,
and the larger conduit includes remains of the vault which supported the
building above. The gable ends of the building and parts of the side walls and
a longitudinal partition wall which divides the ground floor above the main
conduit from the drain stand almost to full height and display various details
of the internal arrangement. The partition wall at ground floor level is
pierced by 12 arched openings which would have been backed by wooden
partitions to form recesses. Below them are sloping chutes to the drain
behind, and in some the brackets which supported seats above the chutes are
also preserved. Above this was an upper floor, originally linked to the monks'
dorter by a bridge which no longer survives.

The infirmary complex, represented chiefly by low wall footings, lies c.12m
east of the east claustral range. The original 12th century infirmary hall and
chapel is rectangular, with dimensions of c.20m in length north-south by c.9m
wide. At the western end, opposite the passage from the cloister through the
undercroft of the east range, there is a door opening with remains of stone
jambs, and there are two more door openings in the north and south walls
respectively. South of it are the remains of a second hall, thought to be of
early 14th century date, with hearths in the eastern and western end walls and
door openings in the side walls. Around these two buildings are the
foundations of later walls which variously define a communicating passage
between them, with courtyards or buildings to either side of it, other
passages connecting the earlier hall with the east range and the church, and a
passage leading from a door opening in the south wall of the later hall to the
remains of a garderobe on the south side of the water channel, c.4m to the
east of the reredorter.

In the western part of the monastic precinct, c.16m from the north end
of the west range, the remains of another building are visible as earthworks
and projecting fragments of flint masonry. These and other buried foundations
produce parch marks which have been recorded by aerial photography, showing
the outline of an L-shaped building and walls separating the outer area in
which it lies from the claustral buildings which are the core of the priory.
To the north of this are a 19th century barn and farm buildings which replaced
a medieval barn demolished in 1838. The ground beneath the post-medieval
buildings is included in the scheduling, although the buildings themselves are

To the south of this and c.13m south west of the western claustral range, is a
court enclosed on the north, west and south sides by the remains of various
agricultural and service buildings which were probably constructed in the 15th
century. The course of the water supply channel can be seen as a linear hollow
along the north side.

The range on the north side of the court is c.75m in overall length and c.7m
wide and includes, at the eastern end, a building thought to have been a
granary or storehouse, with walls which survive to a height of up to c.4.5m
and display various blocked openings. The building on the west side is c.15.5m
in length with a small annexe attached to the southern end, and is divided
internally by two cross walls. At the northern end is the base of a circular
brick structure with a flue which has been interpreted as part of a corn
dryer. On the south side is a building c.47m in length which may have been a
malthouse and brewhouse, with a malting kiln in a room to the south and the
smaller brick bases and flues of coppers to the east.

The eastern part of the precinct is divided into three areas, each
containing earthworks. The boundary between the northern and central parts is
marked by a scarp c.1m in height which runs eastwards to the precinct wall
from a point c.60m north of the monastic church. The boundary between the
central area and the low lying meadow bordering the river to the south is the
main water supply channel which is here visible as a linear hollow up to c.9m
wide with a slight bank along the north side. The northern area includes a
large rectangular platform c.58m east of the gatehouse and the remains of a
rectangular enclosure, visible at the western end of the boundary scarp as a
hollow c.1m deep and measuring c.44m east-west by c.20m, bordered on the east
side by a slight bank and on the south side partly by the footings of a
masonry wall which are exposed for distance of c.20m on upper edge of the
scarp, and partly by a 19th century wall which continues on the same line and
around the western end and probably overlies earlier foundations. The central
part to the east and north east of the monastic church and conventual
buildings contains earthen terraces, low banks and partly infilled ditches
which are visible as linear hollows. Immediately to the north and north east
of the church there are two adjoining enclosures, which are almost certainly
the site of the monastic cemetery and are defined by scarps and banks which
probably cover the remains of masonry walls. Another quadrangular enclosure to
the east of the infirmary halls may have been a garden area. The area
beyond these is subdivided into rectangular terraces and ditched or banked
enclosures which are considered to be the remains of paddocks, gardens and
orchards, and within several of these there are rectangular raised platforms,
c.0.6m in height and between c.3m by 5m and c.12m by 8m in area, which
probably supported timber buildings.

The area to the south contains the earthwork remains of a series of fishponds,
now partly infilled and dry, as well as various post-medieval and modern
drainage features. The fishponds are visible as three parallel, shallow linear
hollows between c.7m and c.9m in width and spaced c.4m apart and, to the west
of these, a rectangular hollow measuring c.52m north-south by c.28m, in the
north west part of which there is a low rectangular platform. Immediately to
the west of this again is a rectangular enclosure defined by ditches on the
north, west and east sides. At least one of the linear ponds extends south of
a modern drainage ditch towards the southern boundary of the precinct on the
bank of the river, to which it would have been connected by sluices to control
the flow of water in and out.

The ruined boundary wall stands up to c.3m high in places and can be traced
around all the western part of the precinct, running northward c.58m from the
gatehouse to Priory Road, then eastwards along the roadside and south
alongside South Acre Road to the river. The river forms the southern boundary,
and the standing fragments and earthwork remains of the wall extend north
westwards alongside it for c.130m; beyond that point the northern side of the
river is embanked slightly to a point due south of the western end of the
south western court. A field boundary c.28m to the north of the court includes
part of a ruined east-west wall c.10m in length which is also believed to be
of monastic date.

Excluded from the scheduling are Abbey Cottage, the post-medieval barn and
associated farm buildings to the south west of the abbey gatehouse, all post-
medieval walls, modern fences, gates, paths and yard surfaces, the remains of
the surface of a hard tennis court to the south of Abbey Cottage garden, the
surface of the visitor car park, inspection chambers, service poles, waste
bins, and English Heritage sign boards, although the ground beneath all these
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. The
Cluniac order had its origins in the monastic reformations which swept across
continental Europe in the tenth century. The reformations which occurred were
partly a response to the impact of Viking raids and attacks on established
monastic sites in the preceding century but were also a reaction against the
corruption and excesses which were increasingly noted amongst earlier
establishments. The Cluniacs were amongst the most successful of the new
reformed orders that developed. The founding house of Cluny in south-east
France was established in AD 910. Here the community obeyed a stringent set of
rules which, amongst other things, involved celibacy, communal living and
abstention from eating meat. The ideals of the Cluniac reformers passed on to
England in the tenth century. Influential Cluniac houses had been established
in England by 1077. Once established, Cluniac houses were notable for the
strong links they maintained both with the founding house of Cluny in France
and also with other houses of their order. Most Cluniac houses in England were
established near major towns and they particularly sought locations in valley
bottoms within the protection of a nearby castle. Cluniac monasteries are
notable for highly decorated, elaborate buildings. Cluniac houses are
relatively rare, with some forty-four houses known in England, and all
examples exhibiting good survival of archaeological remains are worthy of

Castle Acre priory is considered to include some of the finest and most
impressive surviving monastic remains in Norfolk and the core of the monument,
which is maintained for display to the public, is a valuable educational and
recreational amenity. The architectural and decorative details preserved in
the upstanding ruins of the church and claustral buildings, and most notably
in the west front of the church, provide a striking example of the elaborate
style characteristic of Cluniac monasteries, and the wide range of building
remains and earthworks surviving within the known boundaries of the monastic
precinct illustrates much of the layout of the monastery as a whole and the
way in which the life of the monastic community was organised. The standing
and buried remains retain archaeological information relating to many aspects
of the life, economy and history of the community, in addition to information
already obtained from limited excavations on the site. The association of the
priory with Castle Acre castle and a Norman planned town, in a location
regarded as typical of Cluniac foundations, gives the monument additional
historical and archaeological interest, as does the fact that it is one of six
religious houses sited along the Nar valley.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 356-358
Raby, F J E, Baillie Reynolds, P K, Castle Acre Priory, (1986)
Wilcox, R, 'Norfolk Archaeology' in Castle Acre Priory: Excavations 1972-76, , Vol. 37, (1980), 231-276
Armstrong, M, (1780)
Bamford, H, (1996)
copy in HPG file, West, J J, Castle Acre Priory: Notes on lecture by R Wilcox, (1992)
copy in SMR file, Cushion, B, Castle Acre Priory: SMR 4096, (1995)
CUCAP AXA 64, 66, (1969)
Cushion, B, (1995)
Edwards, D, NLA TF 8114/ABR/ASV 13, AEN/DJV 15,
Listing Schedule: TF 8115 11/2 Abbey Cottage,

Source: Historic England

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