Pages 315-317

A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.

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The religious houses of Norfolk were exceptionally numerous, even when the great area of the county is taken into consideration.

The Benedictines were powerful in the district, though Norfolk had no great house of the black monks that could vie with Bury St. Edmunds. Cnut, in the very year that he became king of England, founded the abbey of St. Benet at Holme, amid the desolate swamps by the Norfolk Broads. Here the monks so greatly prospered and increased, that in the course of a few years they were strong enough to send off a swarm of their comrades to take the place of the canons ejected from the restored abbey of St. Edmund in Suffolk. With the advent of the Normans and the removal of the bishop's chair to Norwich, came the establishment of the cathedral priory of the Holy Trinity which was entrusted to the care of the Benedictines. Four out of the five priory cells of Holy Trinity were in this county, namely those of Aldeby, Lynn, Yarmouth and St. Leonard's, Norwich. Wymondham, for several centuries an important cell of St. Albans, became in the fifteenth century an independent abbey. Norfolk possessed two Benedictine priories of some importance, those of Binham and Horsham, as well as three others of smaller size at Modeney, Molycourt, and Mountjoy.

The Benedictine nuns had three settlements, if the priory of St. George's, Thetford, on the Suffolk side of the water, is included. Carrow Priory, on the verge of the city of Norwich, was much valued for the education it afforded to the young ladies of the county. The Thetford nuns were so much under the shadow of the monks of St. Edmund that for two centuries their very food—bread, beer, and even cooked meats—were forwarded to them by cart, once a week all the way from Bury St. Edmunds.

The Cluniac monks had three considerable houses: Castle Acre, with its two small cells at Nbrmanburgh and Slevesholm; Bromholm, of so much repute as a place of pilgrimage to the special relic of the Holy Cross; and Thetford, removed from the Suffolk to the Norfolk side of that town in 1114. The story of the Cluniac houses, originally alien, but released for the most part from foreign tribute and granted charters of naturalization when the French wars subsided, is always interesting; this is specially the case with the three Norfolk priories. (fn. 1)

There were no Cistercian monks in the county, but a Cistercian abbey of nuns was founded at Marham in the reign of Henry III.

The Austin Canons were exceptionally strong in Norfolk, particularly near the sea-board. One of their houses, Creake, was an abbey but of no particular size. By far the most famous was the priory of Walsingham, of continental as well as English repute as a place of pilgrimage. Pentney Priory was a house of good repute and much appreciated for educational purposes. The other fourteen priories were of comparatively small account.

At Crabhouse there was a house of Austin nuns, and at Shouldham a Gilbertine establishment, with a community of nuns and canons in separate blocks of buildings but with a common church.

The Trinitarians or Maturins had a house at Ingham, using part of the parish church as their conventual chapel. The Norwich espiscopal registers show the curious fact that the bishop instituted not only the prior or warden, but also the sacrist who ministered to the parish.

The White Canons or Premonstratensians had three abbeys, at West Dereham, Langley, and Wendling; they must have been brought into close contact with the people, for they usually served the various churches in their gift.

At Carbrooke the Knights Hospitallers had a preceptory, from whence the alms-gatherers for their order went throughout the whole county.

Norfolk was singularly rich in houses of the various mendicant orders. Norwich, Lynn, and Yarmouth had establishments of each of the four great orders; Thetford had both Dominican and Austin Friars; the Franciscans were at Walsingham; and the Carmelites at Blakeney, and Burnham Norton. In addition to this, there were some houses of those minor orders of friars, who were suppressed in favour of the greater orders about 1300. At Norwich and at Lynn there were thirteenth-century houses of Friars of the Sack, and the county town had also houses of both the De Domino and Pied Friars.

Of hospitals the county had a great supply, exceeding forty in number. No fewer than twenty-three of these were lazar-houses. The smaller of these lazar-houses had usually no regular endowment, but were dependent on alms, so that the record references to them are but casual. At Norwich there were five of these small leper-houses, at five of the gates, in addition to the definite establishment of St. Mary Magdalen, a little distance from the city. At Lynn there was the rather unusual establishment of a hospital partly for sound and partly for unsound brethren.

The colleges or collegiate churches numbered seven, of which the Chapel-in-the-Fields, Norwich, was the earliest (thirteenth-century) example, and Thoresby's or Holy Trinity, Lynn (sixteenth-century) was the latest.

The alien priories, attached to great abbeys of France, numbered seven; of these the priory of Sporle, to which the bishop instituted, was the most important.

A certain amount of early light is thrown on the religious houses of the county by the metropolitical visitation of Archbishop Peckham. He was in this diocese from November 1280 to the following January, when we know that he visited the houses of Wymondham, and St. Benet-at-Holme, Coxford, Creake, and Castle Acre, and probably many others. It is clear that he found the monasteries on the whole in a creditable state, very little to find fault with, and very little to reform. If there had been any flagrant abuses, we should have been sure to hear of them, for Peckham was the last man to show any mercy to monks who had gone wrong.

The episcopal registers for Norwich diocese contain, as far as our search of them has extended, no accounts of visitations save of one Suffolk nunnery. Probably such visitation records were, in this diocese, always kept in a separate volume. We know that this was the case during the latter part of the life of the monasteries, from the highly interesting visitation registers of Bishops Goldwell and Nicke, extending from 1492 to 1532, which are now at the Bodleian. (fn. 2) At that period episcopal visitations were undertaken every six years, and twenty-seven houses were thus regularly visited by their diocesan. In that volume much that is sad and much that was irregular came to light, but the cases of good reports infinitely outweigh those of the contrary nature. The same may be said of the visitations every three years of the Premonstratensian houses for about the same period, which were exempt from diocesan control. All these reports are frankly dealt with under each house. The severity of the discipline exercised by the visitors, particularly in the houses of the White Canons, is most marked.

The condition of the Norfolk monasteries at the time of their suppression has been most fully and critically examined, by Dr. Jessopp, (fn. 3) and the horrible comperta of Cromwell's tools set down side by side with the detailed reports of the county commissioners of the same year. (fn. 4) The latter give us the details of twenty-four religious houses, and in nineteen cases the report as to the moral condition and general character of the inmates is highly favourable.


  • 1. The question of the Cluniac establishments is discussed at some length in the Introduction to the 'Religious Houses of Northamptonshire,' and in the accounts of the priories of St. Andrew, Northampton, and Daventry. V.C.H. Northants, ii.
  • 2. Edited for the Camden Society in 1888 by Dr. Jessopp.
  • 3. The Norwich Antiquarian Miscellany (1883), ii, 434-63.
  • 4. Cert. Norf. No. 90.