Foundation of the Priory

By Michael Begley

The Norman Initiative

Binham priory owes its existence to the de Valognes, one of the Norman baronial families coming into England after 1066. Following their conquest and occupation of England, the Normans carried out not just a complete redistribution of land, but also undertook a huge reorganisation of the institutions of both church and state. This was accompanied by a massive building programme. The cathedrals of England were totally rebuilt, new parish churches took shape in virtually every parish of the land, and monastery after monastery was planted across England.

What happened in the church at that time in England needs to be seen as the extension, to this side of the Channel, of a quite remarkable religious revival that had been underway in Normandy in the years before 1066. At the heart of this renewal were the Benedictine monasteries. They were the great centres of spirituality and learning. Within their walls were to be found some of the most notable scholars and administrators of the age. Their patrons and benefactors came from those same baronial families who after 1066 took possession of England, and the new English monasteries and cathedrals were led, and sometimes staffed, by men from the Norman monasteries. David Knowles, the historian of English monasticism, has written: The Normans gave lavishly of their best blood to England for more than fifty years.

The Founding of Binham Priory

Binham certainly came in the first wave of Norman monastic foundations in Norfolk, and it may very well have the distinction of being the first Norfolk monastery to be established by one of the newly arrived Norman baronial families. We don’t, unfortunately, have a precise date for Binham’s foundation. The formal document establishing the monastery, and listing the founders and the

endowment is not dated. It is possible, from internal evidence, to assign it to the opening years of the 1 2th century, and certainly before about 1109, the presumed year of the death of Peter de Valognes, the founder. However, Matthew Paris, the famous S. Albans chronicler, writing a bit over one hundred years later notes that Binham was founded during the time of the Norman abbot from Caen, Paul, who died in 1093. There is also mention elsewhere of a student monk’s being at Binham in 1095.

The Norman bishop of East Anglia, Herbert Losinga, started his big cathedral priory for Benedictine monks at Norwich in 1096 and enough of the living quarters had been completed to allow 60 monks to move in during 1101.

Castle Acre was founded in 1089. The other big Norfolk houses nearby, Pentney, Westacre and Walsingham are all slightly later, dating as they do from the opening decades of the 12th century.

The Founding Family and Its Choice of Binham

The Conqueror had granted de Valognes a modest estate spread across six English counties. He was given manors and land in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. He was sheriff of Essex and also of the adjacent county of Hertfordshire. And it was in Hertfordshire that he had his principal holdings. Here he held the old English estate that had once belonged to the Saxon thane, Aimer. It was centred on Benington near Stevenage. It was in Benington that he had his castle, and a park stocked with wild beasts for the hunt.

We don’t, of course, know why de Valognes picked Binham as the site for what he and his family would, without question, have regarded as the greatest undertaking of his life. If we view things as Peter and Albreda might have done from Benington then perhaps it isn’t too difficult to understand their choice of Binham. They clearly wouldn’t have wanted to step on the toes of an existing Benedictine monastery by setting up their new monastery in the same district. Close at hand was the abbey of S. Alban; it would have been unthinkable to create a rival Benedictine community in Hertfordshire. Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely and the fens were home to some of the giants among English monasteries – Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, Crowland and Thorney. In Suffolk, S. Edmund at Bury was all-powerful. And what’s more there had been bad blood between Valognes and the abbot of Bury. It had led to his seizing some of the abbot’s men, and holding them until forced by the king to let them go.

Norfolk, by contrast, and especially the northern part of the county, was practically virgin territory. There was the abbey of S. Benet of Hulme, established way back in Saxon times, but it stood right over in the Broads, virtually on the edge of nowhere.

So Norfolk, but why Binham? Well here in this corner of north-west Norfolk Peter held a fairly compact cluster of lands. In Binham he held the entire manor – all the village. A monastery here would stand on his land, surrounded by other estates from which it would be possible to draw the endowment needed. I’ve mentioned the modest size of de Valognes’ barony. William de Warren, the founder of Castleacre, had 145 manors in Norfolk; Roger Bigod, founder of Thetford priory had 187 Norfolk manors. By comparison, Valognes had 17.

The priory at Binham was to be based on the existing parish church of S. Mary, and it’s clear from the start that it was always the intention that the parishioners and monks should share the church. It’s interesting to note that the priory founded on the church of East Rudham in about 1140 later moved to its own site at Coxford, whilst the monasteries of Castleacre, Westacre, Pentney and Walsingham were separate from the parish churches from the start.

If Peter had been part of the army of invasion of 1066, by the 1090s he must have been in late middle age. He would be sowing a seed at Binham which he and Albreda would almost certainly not live to see in full bloom. Binham priory was going to be a commitment and a responsibility that the whole de Valognes family must take on.

The endowment would have to be safeguarded, and the development of the site overseen. Almost certainly extra gifts of money would be needed, as well as direction and encouragement to bring the undertaking to completion. And in uncertain times the young house might even need protection from rival interests, whether lay or religious.

Then you would need monks, of various ages and seniority in the religious life, to populate your new establishment. This was only possible with the support of another monastery that was willing to spare some of its own community to get you started. In the case of Binham it was to be S. Albans. The agreement that Peter reached with the abbot of S. Albans provided for eight monks to be released from S. Albans to set up the new convent at Binham. Given de Valognes’ Hertfordshire connexions this was hardly surprising. But I think there may have been a little more to it than a spirit of Christian neighbourliness on the part of S. Albans.

Binham and S. Albans Abbey

At the time of the Conquest, S. Albans, which had been founded in 970, had a modest endowment of lands that lay mostly in Hertfordshire and the neighbouring counties. The Conquest hit S. Albans rather badly and their revenues dropped by a quarter. It was to win the support of archbishop Lanfranc (1070-89) who used his influence with the king and with the Norman barons to gain it wealthy and powerful patrons. And S. Albans built up an unparalleled network of dependent priories, usually referred to as cells, in Northumberland, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire and Middlesex. This was most uncharacteristic of Benedictine monasteries. The feature of the Benedictines was that every monastery was autonomous. Each was a self-governing community of brethren. There was no central authority to which allegiance might be owed or which might demand obedience. A man joined a particular monastery and that was to be his home for life. He could not be transferred elsewhere. Occasionally an able monk might be recruited to head another monastery, to become a bishop, or even an officer of state, but that would be the exception. It was very unusual for one Benedictine monastery to exist as a dependency of another. It would mean that the daughter house would be classed a priory rather than an abbey, and its head a prior, not an abbot. The appointment of the prior was very open to dispute between the monks who might expect to enjoy the right of election and the abbot who would certainly exercise his right of appointment.

However there was a model for the “mother house with daughters” pattern that had seemed to find favour at S. Albans. The Burgundian monastery of Cluny was founded as a strict Benedictine abbey in 909. In the course of time a string of monasteries came into being across Europe all keen to follow the strict way of life and the liturgical practice of Cluny. They looked to Cluny for leadership and guidance, and together formed a Cluniac family willingly embracing the authority of the mother house. The result was that all Cluniac houses everywhere were subject to the authority of the abbot of Cluny. Monks of the Cluniac order were introduced into England by the de Warenne family, first at Lewes in Sussex and subsequently at Castleacre. Could it be that S. Albans saw itself as the English Cluny? Very likely. It is certain that de Valognes did. In his foundation charter he makes his intentions very clear. He says: The church of S. Mary, Binham (that is the monastery), is to be subject to the church of S. Alban (the abbey) to the same extent that the church of S. Pancras, Lewes (the Cluniac priory) is subject to S. Peter of Cluny. It shall have the same freedoms under S. Alban as S. Pancras has under the church of Cluny. Binham will pay 13s.4d to the mother house on S. Alban’s day. The conditions under which the abbot may visit Binham are set out in detail. He may come only once a year, his stay is normally to be limited to eight days, and his retinue will be limited to thirteen horses.

De Valognes was involved in one incident that casts light on these times. The monastery of Tynemouth, burial place in 651 of king Oswin the martyr, and long linked to Jarrow and Durham, had been snatched from under the noses of the monks of Durham and transferred to S. Albans by Robert de Mowbray, earl of Northumberland, probably at the instigation of Lanfranc and the king. Valognes was with the king at the siege of Newcastle in 1095 and was a witness to the charter then issued by the king confirming S. Albans’ possession of Tynemouth.

We know that Peter and Albreda discussed their Binham project with their two sons, William and Roger; with their in-laws; with their nephew, Walter; and with their friends. And also with their feudal family. These baronial estates were held from the king in return for military service. Each barony having to supply a set number of knights – armed, mounted fighters – for the feudal levies. Valognes owed the king 30 knights’ fees. These knights had to be maintained on the manors that he held. Eight of de Valognes’ knights lived on his West Norfolk manors – for example there was fat Ralph at Ryburgh. Others were at Snoring, Tofts, Testerton, Wood Dalling, Walsingham, Barney, Babingley and Appleton.

These had all been consulted, and had freely agreed – so Peter claimed – to contribute out of their manors towards the endowment of Binham priory. And the knights had further undertaken, should they die in England, to be buried in the priory church of Binham. Thus creating a bond between future generations and the priory.

The Binham Endowment

So, what was the endowment that de Valognes put together for the support of his new monastery?

To make a general point first. A common pattern for these monastic endowments was emerging across England in these years. By and large, the barons were reluctant to part with large parcels of land. The largest part of the Binham endowment was the Binham estate (the manor) itself. The monks were given this in its entirety. The remainder of the endowment was rather small fry.

The convent was to have two thirds of the tithes of Dersingham and Ingoldisthorpe – churches that were in Peter’s hands. It had a similar two thirds of the tithes of each of the churches on the manors that Peter’s military knights held directly from him. These were Great Ryburgh, Great and Little Snoring, Tofts, Testerton, Wood Dalling, Saxlingham, Great Walsingham, Barney, Babingley, Appleton, and Pattesley.

These tithes, raised on the produce of each of the villages concerned, were, of course, being diverted from each of the parish churches for whose maintenance they had originally been intended.