The Cluniac Castle Acre Priory was founded by William de Warrene who had been granted much land for his support of William the Conqueror in 1066. It was a pilgrimage to Cluny Abbey in Burgundy that instigated the founding of the priory in his home town of Castle Acre in 1079. He also founded one in the town of Lewes, Sussex to which it was subservient.
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It was de Warreneís son that carried through with the construction started c1090, granting further land and orchards to the priory. The church was completed c1146-1148. The priory was supported by the gifts of churches from both generations as well as two other men. Royal support was also given.
The priory originally was for 36 monks, but this varied over time with setbacks during the 1290s and again in the 1348-50 period due to the Black Death. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1537 there were 10 monks and a prior in residence.
There are extensive ruins (among the largest and best preserved in England) set in walled 24 acres of grounds by the River Nar. The two storey gatehouse dates from the early 1500s. It would have had a waiting room, a porterís lodge attached, and a room on an upper floor, possibly used as a courthouse. Still existing on the gatehouse are carved stone shields reflecting coats of arms of supportive families.
The church dates mainly from the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Arcading and moulding set off the west front in a good state of preservation. Its carvings would once have been painted. There are towers on either side. The church had a nave seven bays long with an aisle on each side, transepts and a presbytery with apse. Cream Barnack limestone was used along with brown carr stone and flint in the construction. There were a number of changes in the church as late as the 15th century. A two storey sacristy was constructed in the last part of the 12th century and a fireplace was added in the 1500s.
Domestic buildings were grouped around the cloister. The cloister is 100 feet square and was covered. The monks worked here. The second storey of a two storey high, 10 bay long room served as their dormitory. The ground floor of the dormitory was vaulted with eight bays long and two wide and was divided into rooms, one serving as a parlour, two others as warming rooms (fires were allowed). A day room was also located here.
South of the church is the 1250s chapter house, the place where the monks met to listen to a chapter of the rule of St Benedict and to conduct priory business. It was originally curved at the east end and vaulted. Near the river was a two storey latrine block. The ground floor had a barrel-vaulted roof. Remains of an infirmary show it had two side by side halls, one dating from the 1250s. It housed a chapel as well as a place for sick and elderly monks. A second infirmary was built at a later date.
A refectory (dining hall) was located in the south range of the cloister. The kitchen was large at three bays wide and a massive chimney. In the 14th century a second kitchen was built to the south.
The prize of the ruins is the Priorís house. Between 1180-1190 a three storey tower porch was added and then made larger in the 16th century. It was at one time connected to a first floor gallery. There was a cellar six bays long. The outer parlour of the house was used as a meeting place for the monks with those from the outside world. A rib vaulted chamber was added in the 14th century on top of a vaulted room. There is decorative architectural detail in the room. Stairs lead from the outer parlour up to the priorís chamber, used for sleeping. The original 14th century scissor-braced roof is still in place. There was a latrine tower off the room. In the 16th century alterations were undertaken to the room, including the addition of two windows and a fireplace. There are two medieval oak chests in the room.
In the house is the priorís chapel used for private mass. A chamber was added in the early 1300s and two windows later. Its original roof and 15th century ceiling are still in place. Traces of wall paintings are seen here. A sedilia is to the right of the altar. In the tower porch was a private room for the prior reached through his chamber. The room below was his study. The priorís hall was used as a court house and entertaining area. It had tall windows. His parlour was a private living space with a large fireplace. A 14th century window has survived here.
In the grounds are a ruined building, once a water mill, and service building remains that include a granary, kiln house, bakehouse, and brewhouse.
There is a visitor centre with an exhibition and archaeological finds, and an herb garden.
Castle Acre Priory
Stocks Green, Norfolk
1/4 mile west of the village of Castle Acre
Tel. 0 1760 755 394
Open: April-end Sep, daily, 10am-6pm; Oct-daily, 10am-5pm; Nov-end March, weekends only, 10am-4pm; closed 24-26, 31 Dec and 1 Jan
English Heritage property; audio tour; parking
Photos © by Barbara Ballard