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.
St Benedict divided the day into three activities — liturgical prayer, spiritual reading and manual labour, but manual work had virtually disappeared by the tenth century. Liturgical duties and intellectual pursuits increased and Benedictines became famed for their performance of the liturgy, with worthy ceremonial and music. Daily worship consisted of the Mass and eight other services at particular times of the day and night.
Books and architecture are the visible legacy of the medieval Benedictines who were generally richer than the other orders, and so more interesting to Henry VIII and his minister Thomas Cromwell. Binham Priory was suppressed in 1539, but by then had only six monks and its annual income had dropped to £140.
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 scandalous behaviour.
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 his life.
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.
Richard 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.
Richard de Parco also covered the cloister with lead, rebuilt the larder, with a solar chamber, added a new stable, and a stone wall from the gate to the chapel of St Thomas. His most important and ambitious work was to construct the west front, and yet in spite of all his building activities there was a balance of £20 when he left.
In 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.
In 1433 the prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich, but the village people, who were on bad terms with the priory at the time, made him welcome.
In 1461 came the eccentric Prior William Dyxwell. He wandered about from place to place like a vagabond. He was deposed in 1464 but re-appointed a year later for life.
At 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 a vestry.
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.