The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross,
History pages © 2004 Binham Parochial Church Council. Photography by Eric Field and Ronald A Chapman. Text by A R Hundleby
|Parish & Community||Building & History||Other Churches in the Group|
St Benedict founded the Benedictine order around the
year 526. Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral and
Norwich Cathedral were Benedictine houses, and others included Bury St
Edmunds, Glastonbury and St Albans. Binham Priory was founded as a cell
of St Albans Abbey in 1091 by Peter de Valoines. He was a nephew of William
the Conqueror who gave him the land at Binham, which according to the
Domesday Book originally belonged to a freeman named Esket.
The priory was endowed in the reign of Henry I, probably
about 1104, although the building was not finished until the middle of
the thirteenth century. The list of priors starts with Osgod in 1106.The
Abbot of St Albans was allowed to stay for eight days a year, unless
invited to stay longer, and to have no more than thirteen horses in his
train. The number of monks was to be no less than eight, and the heirs
and successors of the founder were to remain patrons and protectors.
With the notable exception of Richard de Parco, Binham suffered much
from unscrupulous and irresponsible priors, who quarrelled with St Albans,
sold the priory silver, wasted money on lawsuits and even indulged in
About 1212, the priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter.
The Abbot of St Albans had removed the prior so Fitzwalter produced a
forged deed of patronage stating that the prior could not be moved without
his consent, and laid siege to the Priory. The monks were forced to eat
bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about
it he swore 'By God's feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England'
and he sent an armed force to relieve the priory. Fitzwalter fled for
The deaths of about twelve monks of Binham are recorded
in an obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253, which includes the story
of Alexander de Langley one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane
through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated,
he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death.
He was buried in chains in the churchyard.
de Parco was prior from 1227 to 1244 and we have an account of his
activities in the chronicle of Matthew Paris. He was
honourable and diligent, and acquired property from which he secured
income. Thus the windmills of Edgefield and Wells were charged 1½ marks
to provide two cassocks and three other garments, and on the days when
the monks had no gruel or cheese, the church of Ryburgh was responsible
for their provisions.
1285 Edward I stayed at Binham for several days. In 1317 William de
Somerton became prior. He spent vast sums on the pursuit
of alchemy, and sold two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven
gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and
crown in which the Host was suspended before the altar. Also the Abbot,
Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands, so that it was difficult
to buy food for the monks. When Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham,
the prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole
forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of the
prior and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were
imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated
but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.
The records of the priory were burnt during the Peasants
Revolt of 1381 at the instance of John Lister, a Binham man, who was
the leading spirit of the rising in this part of Norfolk.
the dissolution in 1539, the King's examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no
difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they
levied fines, not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases
under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.' The site and possessions
were granted to Thomas Paston in the 33rd year of the reign of Henry
VIII, four hundred and fifty years after the priory's foundation.
The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d was paid to
Sir Thomas in 1533 for 'rubble and stone from Binham Priory' which was
used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson
Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to
build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory.
However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered
a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at
Appleton instead. In
1715 the roof was repaired.As the outer ends of the timbers were rotten,
they were cut off, and the roof rebuilt to a lower pitch with the shortened
timbers, partly obscuring the round window. The stained plaster on the
walls above the clerestory shows where the lower roof was. A new roof
was installed at the original pitch in 1903.
There were four bells in the central tower during the reign of Edward VI. In a faculty dated 1741, the parishioners were given permission to sell the last of the bells which was lying broken in the churchyard, and to use the proceeds to buy communion plate.
The registers for 1809 record that baptisms were taking place at Wighton church while the great west window was being bricked up. Also at this time the rubble from the destruction of the north aisle was used to raise the floor of the church some three feet in a misguided attempt to cure damp. This made the floor level with the seats of the sedilia and obscured the bases of the pillars and the steps up to the font.
In 1900 the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings reported 'It is impossible to approach or to enter the building, without being impressed by its grandeur, and at the same time depressed by the state into which it has lapsed'. An appeal for £2,300 was launched with an article in The Times 'to prevent the church becoming an utter ruin'. A new roof was installed at the original height and pitch, the lead sheets being recast on site under J A Reeve architect.
Further work was carried out in 1929-35 aided by the
Pilgrim Trust, when the rubble from the north aisle was removed from
the floor, and the floor restored to its original level, leaving marks
on the wall which can still be seen. The benches and misericords were
restored. The box pews were removed and some of the panels used to make
In 1987-90 further restoration work was undertaken under
the direction of Donald Insall OBE.The round window, now thought to be
the earliest of its kind in the country, was conserved and cleaned. Help
towards the cost was provided by English Heritage, The Historic Churches
Preservation Trust and The Norfolk Churches Trust.