Bryant on Binham, 1908

Norfolk Churches, North Greenhoe Hundred, by T. Hugh Bryant. Norwich Mercury 1908

In commencing another Hundred and Deanery in Norfolk with Binham, we have undoubtedly taken one of the most attractive places in the whole county, not only for the varied kinds of its architecture, but also for the interesting events connected with the building. Although the Priory has mostly gone, the ruins are still there, and the stream stall meanders through the fields upon which it once looked. The imagination awakes at the sight, and we see the Priory in its best days, rearing its proud head against the sky ; we admire the delicate arches and tracery, and think of the pious munificence of its founder.


Binham, Bynham or Binneham is a parish with a large village, containing about 480 inhabitants, situated some rive miles northeast of Walsingham, in the northern division of the county, in the North Greenhoe Hundred and rural deanery of Walsingham. We find that before the Conquest a freeman named Esket was lord of the place, but William I. deprived him of his land, and granted it to his nephew. Peter de Valoines. At that time, according to the Domesday book, it consisted of three carucates of land, three villeins, thirteen Bordars, and two servi. At the Survey there were six carucates in demesne, and one carucate and a half and eleven acres of meadow among the tenants, besides a water mill, &c., paying 16s. There were also eight horses attached to the lord’s hall, and at the Survey only five. There was also land in Wells, &c., valued at £20. It was one leuca lone and a half broad, and paid 2s. gelt.


Peter de Valoines and his wife Albreda, with the consent of the Conqueror, founded here before 1093, a Priory of Benedictine monks, dedicated to S. Mary, and to be a cell to the Abbey of S. Albans, subordinate only to the monastery of S. Peter e Cluny in France. It was to pay a mark of silver to S. Albans annually, and to provide for the reception of the Abbot of that house once a year, and he to have not more than thirteen horses in his train. The number of monks was to be not less than eight, and the heirs, or successors of the founder, were to remain patrons. Although founded about 1092-3, the endowment does not appear to have been completed until the reign of Henry I. between 1101-7, for we find among the witnesses to the foundation charter, Richard, Abbot of S. Beret’s Hulm, who was not elected until after 1101, and Robert, Abbot of S. Edmund’s, who died in 1106-7.


The founder endowed the Priory with the lordship of the town of Binham, besides considerable grants of land elsewhere, and his son Roger confirmed what his father had given, and was himself a considerable benefactor to it, as were Peter and Robert de Valoines, both of whom were buried here. Things appear to have gone on smoothly until the second year of King John, when Robert, Lord Fitzwalter, demanded that the Prior Thomas, who had lately been deposed, should be reinstated. He appears to have been removed on account of his having taken Fitzwalter’s part against the Abbot of S. Albans, in a dispute about the ownership of Northaw Wood. He (Fitzwalter) is said to have produced a false deed of patronage, and upon the Abbot refusing to accede to his demands laid siege to the Priory, and Matthew Paris says that after a time the monks were forced to eat bran bread and drink the rain water that ran off the buildings. Upon King John hearing of this he was enraged ; the words he uttered are said to have been-‘ Ho ! by God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King in England ! Ho! by God’s feet, who ever heard of such things in peaceful times in a Christian land ! ” He immediately sent troops to defend it, and they were successful in raising the siege. Fitzwalter was driven off and fled, his friend and fellow soldier Fitzwilliam was captured, and presented as a propitiation of his share in the offence, a silver gilt cup to the Abbey of S. Albans.


There is a fair held here, granted under a charter during the reign of Henry I. for four days, but now only lasting two days, beginning upon the vigil of S. Mary, and also a weeky mercate on Wednesday. In the year 1200 a fine was levied, wherein William de Chaen, lord of North Greenhoe Hundred and Wighton, grants to the Prior certain customs due to him as lord, and the Prior in exchange grants that the men of Wighton should be free from toll in Binham market. A portion of the market cross, a long raised shaft on steps, still remains at the east end of the village. Among other interesting events we find that Pope Innocent in 1250, confirmed by a bull the grant of the church of Westley, in Cambridgeshire, to them. Reginald de Bacon in 1262, gave a moiety of Laringset church to the Priory, and that during 1285 Edward I. stayed here for several days.


The ivy clad remains of the nave of the church of the Priory are now used as the parish church, as it appears to have been since its foundation. It is pleasantly situated on a rising ground in the vale of the small river Stiffkey, upon the banks of which traces have been found of the Priors watermill. The original building was cruciform, and evidently a magnificent structure, with a massive central tower. All that now remains is the nave with a part of the west front, and ruinated portions of transepts, aisles, chancel and tower, and domestic buildings. These represent architecture in the Norman, Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular styles. The Conventual church represents the greater portion of the Norman ; the refectory and chapter house the Early English ; in the dormitory and chapter house we find the Decorated ; and the perpendicular in the ruins of the cloisters on the south side. All the architectural features of the Norman are of the plainest character, the billet moulding being almost the only internal ornamental feature, with these exceptions : Two are of the zig-zag pattern, one ” dog-tooth,” and one of a pattern rare, if not unique.


The nave was originally of nine bays with triforium and clerestory, but has now only seven, the two nearest the East were destroyed with the monk’s choir, of which they formed part, at the suppression of the Priory in 1540. The transepts also shared the same fate. The massive square piers have shafts in the nooks at the angles, the outer arch moulded and the inner plain. The triforium. arches are similar to the lower one:, and the clerestory windows have each small arches on the sides, with bold detached shafts, the centre arch stilted with small shafts in the angles, on the caps of the large ones. Externally the windows are plain, with a nebule corbel-table over them. Some of the westernmost arches of the triforium and clerestory are Early English having replaced the Norman, either from dilapidation, or more probably damaged during the siege by Lord Fitzwalter. The bell cot that still hangs on the west gable of the nave is Early English and contains one bell with the following inscription on it, ” I. B.1656 ” (John Brend, junior) ; there were four bells here during the reign of Edward VI. In a faculty dated 1741 it appears that a bell weighing between two and three cwt., which was in the churchyard, had been broken by some unknown person, or persons, who had stolen about eighteen pounds of the metal. As the parishioners had a bell hanging in the church they were authorized to sell the broken bell, and apply the money arising from such sole to the purchase of Communion plate.


The west front, which has been engraved by several artists, was the work of the Prior, Richard de Parco and is a grand example of Early English workmanship. It was probably executed between the years 1226 and 1244 ; the lower portion having a rich arcade with perforated panels in the spandrils and under the side arches, and a central doorway with fine moulding, and varieties of enriched tooth ornament. Above this is a splendid window now unfortunately almost blocked up, once of two lights, and a foliated circle in the head, each light sub-divided in the same manner. At the ends of the aisles are the remains of two lateral doorways, above which are tall two-light windows, which are of singular appearance. About a third of their height they are divided by transoms, and subarches having a foliated circle in the head ; the cusps of the large circle and some of the small have flowered points. The peculiarity is accounted for in this way :- At the time the west end was altered, the Norman vaulting of the aisles of the nave was destroyed, and a loftier vaulting substituted, which permitted the lower portion of the windows to give light into the aisles, and raised the floor of the triforium level with the upper line of the transom. The Priory buildings were apparently upon the south side, whilst the cemetery was on the north. The floor of the interior has been raised so that the Early English sedilia upon the south side of the altar has its seats level with the floor. The staircase to rood-loft is in the fifth pillar on the same side, and has a Perpendicular doorway into the church.


The octagonal font, which is very similar to that at Little Walsingham, is elevated upon two steps, and leas sculpture in basso-relievo in the upper panels, representing; the seven sacraments and the Holy Trinity, and the lower ones have eight figures of saints beneath as many canopies ; the whole is unfortunately much mutilated. The rood-screen, which was once richly illuminated, is a specimen of Perpendicular work, and at the Reformation was painted over with white and covered with texts of scriptures, Tyndale’s version, in large black letters. Portions of the heads and drapery of the saints originally painted upon the panels appear here and there, and in one place, a female hand holding portions of a wheel denotes S. Katherine; Henry VI. also appears without a nimbus ; S. Christopher appears on the south side. On the north side are three panels, with a figure on each ;including S. Agnes and the lamb, book, and sword; S. Appolonia, S. Sitha or Zita, veiled, with rosary ; S. Sebastian and others. There are some old seats remaining with carved heads, but otherwise with the exception of a few Perpendicular stalls, the building is mostly filled with open pews, capable of holding three hundred persons.


The precinct, in the centre of which stood the Priory Church was entered at the west end, by what was called the “Jail Gate,” probably called thus from having once contained a prison, the remains of which are Early English. Upon the left side of the inner arch of the gate was a squint, running through the wall on a line with the centre of the west door of the church. The ruins of the porter’s lodge still exist. The lower part of the wall constituting the east end of the present church is the Norman wall of partition between the church of the monks and that of the parish. The nave had probably since its foundation been appropriated to the parish church, and to this circumstance may be ascribed its preservation. The south aisle disappeared some time ago, but the north aisle was only removed early in the present century. The arches dividing the nave from the aisles, have been bricked up, and some of the windows from the aisles inserted. At the Dissolution there was a Prior, and only six monks, and it was valued at about £150. It was, undoubtedly, at one time very rich, but probably lost considerably through its rival Walsingham becoming so popular. There were guilds here of S.S. Mary, John the Baptist, Alban, Thomas, All Saints, and Corpus Christi.


In the thirty-third year of Henry VIII., he granted to Thomas Paston the site of the Priory , with the manor and rectory, besides lands in Walsingham, Wells, Gunthorp, Barney, Thursford, etc. He was the fifth son of Sir William Paston, Knt., and father of Sir Edward, who died lord in 1630. His descendant, Edward Paston, lord of this manor, married Mary, daughter and co-heir of John Clerk of Bale, whose son sold the lordships about 1756 to William Russell, of London. There is a story told, that Edward Paston wishing to build a mansion near, or upon the site of the Priory, had the domestic buildings levelled, when a portion of a wall fell killing a workman, this was considered a bad omen, so he gave it up and built one elsewhere. It now belongs to W. C. Clarke-Thornhill. Esq., the present lord of the manor, the tenure of which is “Smockhold,” i.e., the wife possesses an equal claim in the copyhold with her husband, and retains her claim in the event of his dying intestate.


The following, is a list of the Priors of Binham :Osgod 1106 ; Ralph 1174 ; Peter 1195 ; Thomas 1199 and 1210 ;[omits Richard de Parco 1227 to 1244]; Richard de Shelford 1244 and 1262 ; Ralph 1261; William 1262 ; Adam 1267 ; Milo – – Peter – – – ; Walter 1286 ; William de Somerton 1317, presented by Hugh, Abbot of S. Albans; Nicholas de Flamstede 1323 ; John de Candewell 1337 by Michael, Abbot; in 1380 William Dixwell; ; 1424 Michael Cheyne ; 1430 William Dixwell ; 1436 William Spygon by the Abbot; 1438 Nicholas Wellys ; 1454 Henry Halstede ; 1461 William Dixwell ; 1464 John Peyton ; 1465 William Dixwell ; 1480 Richard Whitingdon ; 1481 William Dixwell ; 1502 Thomas Sudbury ; 1505 Dns. William Frevell ; 1509 John Albon, S.T.B. The Priory remained a cell to S. Albany, until visited by Sir Robert Ryche, one of Cromwell’s men, who wrote to him, saying he would, with his permission, suppress Binham, as they levied fines, ” not namyng the Abbott of Saynt Albany’s,” and granted leases under their own seal, ” not namyng the Abbott.”


The seal of the Priory is : Upon the obverse the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, who is seated and holds in her left hand a book ; a dove is descending upon her head. The legend runs SIGILLVM ECCL’IE BE. MARIE DE BINEHAM. There is no reverse. That of the Abbey of S. Albans had a representation of the Virgin Mary seated under a canopy upon one side, and upon the other, a picture of the martyrdom of S. Alban, where the headsman is holding out his hands to catch his own eyes, which are said to have fallen out when the saint’s lead was struck off by the executioner’s sword. The legend around the rim of the seal runs : ” MORTIR OBIIT VICTOR PRIVATUR LUMINE LICTOR.”


The following is a complete list of the Vicars since the year 1310. 1310 Alan Alam, Vicar, by. Prior of Binham. 1330 Richard Languale-ditto. 1349 John Archer-ditto. 1349 William Alen. 1351 Andrew Goldsmith. 1374 John Randolph. 1375 Edmund Hillot. 1386 John Cheney. 1393 Thomas Calwere. 1400 John Sige. 1416 John Cosyn. 1471 Richard Dene, by the Bishop. 1481 Richard Harman. 1488 William Waterman. 1492 William Becbank. 1505 Richard Weston, by the bishop, a lapse. Thomas Lyon, Vicar. 1521 Thomas Jary, by Prior, &c. 1542 Thomas Blithe S. T. B. by Thomas Paston of the Privy Chamber of the king. 1546 Thomas Silverside-ditto, 1555 William Powle, by the Bishop. Christopher Nuttell. 1592 Ralph Same, by Edward Paston, Esq. 1603 Richard Baldwin-ditto 1628 Richard Slynn, by Robert Fieden, assignee of Sir Henry Compton Knt. 1662 Edmund Wyth. 1706 John Wells, curate and sequestrator 1750 Samuel Hemington, Vicar, by the King 1783 Edward Tilson. 1787 George Boldero. 1822 William Upjohn. 1856 Arthur Gilbert. 1855. The Rev. Robert Corry Cavell, the present Vicar (1898),


The living is a discharge vicarage valued in the King’s Book. at £6 13s. 4d., and augmented with £800 Q.A.B. front 1767 to 1800 and £200 given by T. T. Clarke of Uxbridge, at one time patron and impropriator. The money was laid out in the purchase of 36 acres of land at Bodham. In 1839 the rectorial tithes were commuted for £200 and the vicarial for £100 pa. The vicarage was erected 32 years ago party by subscription and by a grant and loan of £400 from the Queen Anne’s Bounty Fund. The Town Estate consists of a public house, the “Chequers,” two cottages for occupation of deserving poor, rent free, and 16a. 3r. 25p. mostly received at the enclosure in exchange for lands given by two maiden ladies, for coals etc. Poor widows have £7 yearly as rent of 3a. 2r. 23p. of land left by Christopher Ringer in 1578. Nathaniel Hooke left in 1693, 7a. 2r. 30p. of land in Hindringham the rent to be distributed in duffel for coats among poor married labourers.


The register dates back to 1559, and is in fair condition. It was in 1652 possessed by Sir Thomas Widerington, knt.. It is now in the hands of the present Vicar. There is a small brass in the church with the figures of a man and wife, circa 1525-30, now very indistinct through wear. Among the discoveries made at Binham was a bronze ring found in 1860, with the cipher ” L S J,” temp. Henry- 8th, and a silver thimble, inscribed ” Fere God only” ; in 1857 a bronze seal was also found. Communion plate in the church consists of an ancient Chalice Cup and Paten which are in a good state of preservation. These ruins have a great fascination for any antiquary, and only last summer the Norfolk Archaeological Society visited the place, when an interesting account was given of its past history. Any person walking along the bare and unroofed aisles cannot help thinking of the beauty and completeness of the Priory, designed for the worship of God, at the same time regretting its destruction by the orders of an unscrupulous king.