A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
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HOUSES OF CLUNIAC MONKS
15. THE PRIORY OF CASTLE ACRE
The Earl of Warenne, the founder of the great Cluniac house, of Lewes, founded a priory of the same order at Castle Acre between 1087 and 1089, making it subject to Lewes, as Lewes was subject to Cluni. The founder endowed this priory of St. Mary with the Norfolk churches of Castle Acre, Methwold,Wickmere, and Trunch, and the church of Leaden Roding, Essex, together with two parts of the tithes of his demesnes in Grimston. (fn. 1) William, the second earl, confirmed his father's grants, together with a considerable amount of additional gifts. The first church had been within the castle area; but the monks, finding it inconveniently small, had begun to build a monastery on the present site before the second earl drew up his charter. Therein he granted them the two orchards and all the cultivated ground between the orchards and castle, where they had founded their new church with his help and encouragement, and further gave them his serf Ulmar the stonemason to work on the new church. The church and cloister were not finished until after the death of the second earl. They were consecrated by William Turbus, bishop of Norwich from 1146 to 1174, in the lifetime of the third earl, who died in 1148.
The Norfolk churches and portions of tithes or ecclesiastical pensions that came into the hands of the monks of Acre at an early date were very numerous. Bishop Ebrard of Norwich confirmed to them no fewer than twenty-six churches or portions about the year 1140. Henry I. confirmed to the priory the churches of South Creake and Newton, and Henry II. the church of Fleet.
The taxation of 1291 gives the annual value of the priory's temporalities in seventy-eight Norfolk parishes at £130 17s. 8½d., in two Suffolk parishes at 4s. 4d., and in Lincoln diocese at £3 10s. The Norfolk diocese spiritualities were of the annual value of £72 7s.; those of London diocese, 13s. 4d.; those of Lincoln, £7; and those of Ely, £1 2s. This yields a total annual value of £215 14s. 4½d.
Order was issued in January, 1325, to the treasurer and barons of the exchequer to cause the priory of Castle Acre to be restored to the prior, the prior having given the king to understand that the keepers of alien priories in Norfolk and Suffolk had taken the house into the king's hands by virtue of a general order affecting the lands of aliens in the power of the king of France; whereas the late king, in 1306, had made exception in favour of Castle Acre, having learnt from John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, and others, that the prior and convent were Englishmen and not aliens, and that they did not pay any tax or pension to any of the power of France, and were not bound by obedience or affinity to any one of that power, save that the abbot of Cluni used to visit the priory when he came to England, and that the prior and convent in such visitations received their profession from the abbot. (fn. 2) In the following April this order was repeated; everything was to be restored to the priory, saving to the king the corn and other goods taken for his use for the expedition to the duchy of Aquitaine. (fn. 3)
Protection for a year was granted to the prior of Castle Acre on 14 August, 1337, because he was not by birth of the power of the king of France, paid no cess or pension to any religious alien house, and was bound in obedience to none save to the abbot of Cluni when visiting this kingdom. (fn. 4) Nevertheless the king claimed to present to the advowsons of the priory on account of the war with France; thus on 8 December, 1338, he presented, on that ground, to the church of St. Andrew, Tattersett. (fn. 5)
A formal charter of denizenship or naturalization was granted by the crown to Castle Acre Priory in the year 1351. (fn. 6)
On the Saturday before the third Sunday in Lent, 1276, the priory was visited by the prior of Wenlock and the equerry of the abbot of Cluni. The community then numbered thirtytwo, and the visitors reported that their mode of life was conducted with propriety and regularity. The same general injunctions that were issued throughout the visitation were served on the prior relative to the use of the saddle-crupper, riding leggings, the eating of meat, reading in the farmery, and remaining in the convent after compline. The debts of the house amounted to the serious sum of £504. In 1279 there was a visitation by the priors of Mont Didier (France) and Lenton. They arrived at Castle Acre on 8 September. They reported that the brethren numbered thirty-five, and that they conducted themselves well, and carried on the divine offices and all ecclesiastical rites in a proper manner. The liabilities of the house were 1,700 marks, though the debt was only 600, marks when the prior was first appointed. The house had also become responsible for the debt of 200 marks of Miles, the present abbot of Vézelay (France), at the time when he was prior of Lewes. (fn. 7) The prior was too extravagant (nimis sumptuosus), but would willingly resign if another superior could be found. (fn. 8)
In January, 1344, Clement VI received a petition from John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, stating that the dispensation on account of illegitimacy, granted by John XXII and renewed by Gaucelin, bishop of Albano, under order of Benedict XII, to his brother William, prior first of Hoxton and then of Castle Acre, formerly monk of Lewes, was of no avail, because it was given for a nonconventual priory—Hoxton being non-conventual but Castle Acre conventual—praying that, notwithstanding William's illegitimacy, he may retain the priory of Castle Acre. In the event Prior William was rehabilitated and dispensed, and the fruits received were remitted. (fn. 9) It would seem that William not long afterwards resigned or was degraded from the office of prior, as an order was issued in 1349 for the arrest of William de Waren and Robert de Neketon, monks of Castle Acre, who had spurned the habit of their order and were vagabond, and their delivery to William Picot their prior. (fn. 10)
An undated visitation among the Cluni muniments, but probably of the year 1390, gives the number of the monks as twenty-six, and states that there were seven daily celebrations written down on the table three of which were with music and four plain. Twenty-six is named as the full complement of monks, though it is stated that formerly the number was not limited and was sometime's upwards of thirty. (fn. 11)
A table of all the affiliated foundations of the abbey of Cluni throughout Christendom, drawn up about the year 1500, gives the number of the monks then at Castle-Acre as twenty-six. (fn. 12)
The indulgence of the Portiuncula was granted in August, 1401, by Boniface IX to penitents, who on the next Passion Sunday and on the feast of St. James should visit the Cluniac church of Castle Acre and give alms for the repair of the church, wherein are divers relics of saints, and to the which a great number of people resort. The prior, sub-prior, and ten other priests chosen by them, were authorized to hear confessions on those two feasts, and on the two days immediately preceding them. (fn. 13)
A singular question of conscience arose in 1404 as to the observance of an oath taken by Simon Sutton, prior of Castle Acre. On his obtaining the priory, the Earl of-Arundel, asserting himself to be patron, exacted from him an oath not to alienate its woods or possessions, nor to manumit his serfs without licence of the earl or his successors. Subsequently he regretted taking this oath lest it should prejudice the priory rights, and appealed to the pope as to its lawfulness. Innocent VII, after passing a salutary penance on Simon for his incautious oath, decided that the oath was void, as laymen had no such power over persons and things ecclesiastical. (fn. 14)
Thomas Mailing, who had been admitted to office in June, 1519, was prior. On 27 January, 1536, when he wrote a note to Cromwell, of a character only too frequent during that unhappy period, the prior stated that he was sending four marks by the bearer to Cromwell ' for a poor token,' and a patent of four marks a year to him for life out of the monastic revenues. He also said that the bearer was bringing the evidences of his poor house to Cromwell according to his injunctions, but begged him to dispense with or qualify some of his orders. (fn. 15)
In February the priory was visited by the inquisitors, Legh and Ap Rice, who claimed that seven of the monks had confessed to foul sins. But so little credence was in truth given to these tales that in the following month (March, 1536) Thomas Malling the superior of a singularly polluted house, if the royal visitors were to be believed, was chosen by the bishop of Norwich to be presented to the archbishop, together with the prior of Horsham, as the diocesan nominations for the suffragan bishopric of. Thetford. (fn. 16) The archbishop's choice fell upon the latter. In October of the same year the prior of Castle Acre was one of the Norfolk gentlemen appointed by the king (at the time of the Lincoln and northern rebellions) to abide in their counties to keep good order in the absence of the rest of the noblemen. (fn. 17) Only two religious were selected for this honour, namely, the priors of Castle Acre and West Acre.
On 22 November, 1537, (fn. 18) Thomas Mailing and ten of the monks signed the surrender of the priory and all its possessions. (fn. 19) The whole property was at once assigned by the crown to Thomas, duke of Norfolk, at an annual rent of £44 19s. 0¾d. (fn. 20)
Priors of Castle Acre (fn. 21)
Walter Pigot or Picot, occurs 1349 (fn. 22)
There is an impression of the first seal of this priory (21/8 in. × 13/8 in.) attached to an undated charter at the B.M. c. 1200. The seated Virgin bears the Holy Child on her lap, in his left hand a scroll. Legend:—
+ SIGILLUM SANCTE MARIE . . . RENSIS . ECCLESIE. (fn. 23)
An imperfect impression of the second seal is attached to a charter of 1446 (25/8 in. × 1 3/44 in.). The half-length Virgin is shown in radiance upheld by four angels within a tabernacled niche. In the base is a portcullis half covered showing in the open space the monogram of Maria. All that is left of the legend is—
.... MONASTERII . BEAT . . . . (fn. 24)