Houses of Austin canons: The priory of West Acre

Pages 402-404

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

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Ralph de Toni, the great Norman baron, to whom were granted by the Conqueror twentytwo manors in Norfolk, in conjunction with his wife Alice and their sons Roger and Ralph, founded a priory at West Acre in the time of William Rufus, under Oliver the parish priest and his son Walter. (fn. 1)

Blomefield, Dugdale, Taylor, and others have stated that this priory was originally assigned to the order of Cluni, but this is an error which probably arose from both Castle Acre and West Acre being known as Acre at an early date. The priory, dedicated to the honour of St. Mary and All Saints, was held by Austin canons. The founder gave them the manor and church of West Acre and the manor and church of Godwick.

Richard the prior of West Acre, (fn. 2) in 1198, obtained the church of Runhall. (fn. 3) Gifts to this priory multiplied at a rapid rate in the thirteenth century. When the taxation roll of 1291 was drawn up, it was found that the canons of West Acre had property in seventy-four parishes, and that their annual income was £140 5s. 7¼d.

In 1305 Alexander de Wallpoll of Wiggenhall gave to the priory a toft, 35 acres of land, and 10 acres of pasture in Wiggenhall and Tilney. (fn. 4) In 1313 Constantine, son of Geoffrey de Sutton, made a benefaction of a messuage, 60 acres of land, 12 acres of meadow, 40 acres of pasture, 7 acres of heath, and 5s. of rent in West Acre, Walton, Tilney, &c., paying a fine of 5 marks for the licence. (fn. 5)

In 1315 the priory paid a fine of 10 marks for having appropriated the church of Rougham, in their patronage, without licence. (fn. 6)

Licence was granted in 1320 for the alienation to the priory by Maud de Tony of 3 messuages, 100 acres of land, 100 acres of pasture, and 10s. of rent in Grimston, Congham, Roydon, Weavling, Appleton, Marham, and West Acre, to find a chaplain to celebrate daily for the souls of Maud and Robert de Tony, her husband, and of all the faithful, in the chapel of St. Katharine, built by her in the churchyard of Appleton. (fn. 7)

In 1339 the priory of West Acre obtained licence to appropriate the church of Bodney of their advowson. (fn. 8)

Licence was granted in 1343, after inquest, for the prior to enclose for the enlargement of the priory buildings 2 acres of his own pasture, wherein the men of the town had common, provided he find common in two other acres of his land. (fn. 9) During the time that John de Westacre was prior (1417-50) the temporalities of the house were valued at £140 5s. 7¼d. per annum, and the spiritualities at £115 5s. 5¼d., giving a total annual income of £256 11s. 0½d. (fn. 10)

Edward IV, on 7 July, 1479, granted the priory an annual fair at West Acre and Custhorp, on the day of the translation of St. Thomas the Martyr (7 July). (fn. 11) Amongst the Cambridge University MSS. is a small paper book of fortyfour pages containing an account of the property of West Acre Priory, taken in the reign of Henry VII. (fn. 12) The Valor of 1535 estimated the annual clear income of the priory at £260 13s. 7¼d.

A great disaster befell the priory in September, 1286, when the church and the adjacent conventual buildings were destroyed by fire. (fn. 13)

Edward II, in 1310, sent Benedict de Walford, who had served the late and present kings, to this priory to receive in their house, for life, the necessary sustenance of food and clothing. (fn. 14)

Bishop Goldwell visited the priory on 11 August, 1494, when the prior, Richard Palle, then advanced in years, and nineteen canons were present. The report was to the effect that the commands are not observed or they are contradicted by Edmund Lichfield, the sub - prior, and by William Massingham, and that these two canons administered the temporalities of the house; that Robert Patrick and Geoffrey Blake take their ease, do not apply to any study, and are a cause of strife among their brethren; that Henry Tolle could not with a clear conscience live in peace with Geoffrey, though he could get on excellently with Patrick; that the sons of gentlemen (at school) in the house do not pay their expenses; that the sub-prior is not only insolent to his superior but is so given to temporal things that he forgets he is a religious, and gives his chief attention to farming a rabbit warren near the chapel of St. Thomas and to rearing swans on the water near the priory, which he sends as presents to gentlemen, and are therefore no profit to the priory. The bishop made several adjournments of this visitation, and the eventual result is not on record. Judging from the future of the sub-prior, Edmund Lichfield, who here seems so much to blame, it is probable that the prior was worn out and that his subordinate allowed his business capacities to run away with him. Lichfield became prior of Flitcham in 1498, and two years later he was consecrated titular bishop of Chalcedon to enable him to act as suffragan bishop in Norwich diocese. (fn. 15)

Bishop Nicke visited West Acre in 1514. Richard Clarke, prior, was much embarrassed by lack of money. He was in debt £20, and was not able to pay the small stipends of the canons; the stock of sheep had considerably diminished, then numbering 3,000; the prior had sold nine score sheep at the last shearing; they had no grain except that which they bought; there had been no distribution made of the effects of the late prior, whose will ordered the distribution among the brethren. There were also complaints against William Smythe, the sub-prior. Some of the younger canons were pursuing their studies at Cambridge, but there were complaints that they had not received the full amount of the exhibition that had been granted. The visitation shows that there was a good deal of bickering in the convent, but apparently no grave evils. Some of the complaints testify to the strictness with which the services were kept up. For Robert Pepyr, the only canon who could play the organ, could never get the prior to grant him leave of absence. The principal injunction that followed this visitation was the bishop's order to elect a new sub-prior, for the four senior canons presented Spillman and Pallmer to the prior for him to choose one, and his choice fell on Canon Spillman. (fn. 16)

During the next six years the debts and difficulties of the house had increased. William Lowthe was prior at the visitation of 4 July, 1520, having been appointed earlier in that year. There was ho schoolmaster to teach the boys. The number of canons had diminished, but three were at their studies at the University. The prior was spoken of by three of the canons as a sensual person, but their meaning is difficult to understand. There was not a breath against him of any kind of scandal. Sixteen canons were examined at this visitation, but two of them belonged to the cell of Great Massingham. This visitation led to the deposing of the subprior and the appointing of Thomas Pallmer in in his place. (fn. 17)

The priory was visited on 1 August, 1526, when William Wingfield was prior. Seven of the fourteen canons who were present agreed with the prior that all was going on well. But the debts were increasing and the number of canons decreasing; and a grievous scandal had to be reported of one of the canons. (fn. 18)

The last visitation was held in July, 1532. Several of the canons, as well as Prior Wingfield and Sub-Prior Stirtewhaite, were satisfied that there was nothing calling for reformation. All debts were paid, and the balance-sheet produced by the prior showed that the cellarer had £45 in hand. Among the complaints were the payment of an annuity of £4 to Anthony Calibut, for which he returned no service; a diminution in the distribution of bread to the poor; and neglect to keep the lamp burning before the Sacrament according to custom. (fn. 19)

Prior William and sixteen of his canons subscribed in their chapter-house, on 31 August, 1534, to the king's supremacy. (fn. 20)

On 18 September, 1535, at the suggestion of Dr. Legh and John ap Rice, a notary public, two of the most subservient of Cromwell's tools, the monastic visiting jurisdiction of the bishops was suspended by the king. The two men who suggested this were at once made monastic visitors and speedily entered upon their work in Norfolk. On 11 November they wrote to Cromwell as to the progress they were making with their comperta. (fn. 21)

When these two men presented their report they actually asserted that the prior and subprior and eleven other of the canons of Westacre had confessed that they were guilty of foul sins. (fn. 22) It is impossible for any fair-minded person to give credit to so monstrous and wholesale a supposition, especially in view of the recent searching and obviously truthful visitations of this priory by its diocesans.

At any rate no credence whatever could have been given to this particular charge made by these notorious 'visitors'; for although, according to them, West Acre was by far the foulest lived of all the Norfolk religious houses, in October of the very year when their report of the prior of Westacre's personal and conventual enormities had been rendered, William Wingfield was one of the fourteen Norfolk gentlemen specially appointed by the king to abide in their counties and act as justices to keep good order during the absence of the rest of the gentlemen and noblemen during the northern rebellion, the priors of West Acre and Castle Acre being the only two ecclesiastics of the county selected for this honour. (fn. 23)

On 15 January, 1538, West Acre Priory, with the dependent priory or cell of Great Massingham and all its possessions, was surrendered to Robert Southwell, attorney of the Augmentation Office, to be held by him for a year with remainder to the king. The surrender was signed by the prior and seven of the canons. This was the first of the monastic 'surrenders,' and its farcical character is clear; for a month earlier (16 December, 1537) Sir Roger Townsend wrote to Cromwell saying that all the goods of West Acre Priory had been sequestrated according to order and inventories taken. On 9 December there had been some endeavour otherwise to dispose of the monastic property. Commissioner Layton waxed wroth on this subject, and in a letter to Cromwell from West Acre, three days after its 'surrender,' he wrote:—

As for Westacre, what falsehood in the prior and convent, what bribery, spoil, and ruin contrived by the inhabitants it were long to write; but their wrenches, wiles, and guiles shall nothing them prevail. (fn. 24)

Prior Wingfield, notwithstanding his reputed sins and trickery, had the handsome pension granted him of £40 per annum, of which he was still in receipt in 1555; he also held the rectory of Burnham Thorpe.

The 'surrender' of West Acre was accompanied by a vaguely but extravagantly worded 'confession' of lax living. The better known and absurd so-called 'confession' of the monks of St. Andrew's, Northampton, has been dealt with in another volume of this series. (fn. 25) The private correspondence of the visitors with the Lord Privy Seal makes it quite clear that these two confessions (the only ones on record) were written by them; it is more than probable that neither the canons of the one house nor the monks of the other had any knowledge whatsoever of the documents in question. This is a grave charge to make against Ap Rice, Legh, and Layton; but those who have studied the Cromwell correspondence at the Public Record Office at first hand cease to be surprised at any depth of moral turpitude displayed by his active agents. (fn. 26)

Priors of West Acre

Oliver (fn. 27)

Richard, (fn. 28) c. 1193

Hubert, (fn. 29) c. 1200

Godwin, (fn. 30) c. 1210

William, (fn. 31) 1228

Robert de Alenzun, (fn. 32) c. 1235

Simon, (fn. 33) c. 1249

Robert, (fn. 34) c. 1257

John, (fn. 35) c. 1268

Hubert, (fn. 36) occurs 1285

Richard, (fn. 37) occurs 1288

Henry de Acra, (fn. 38) elected 1300

William de Wesenham, (fn. 39) elected 1323

William de Waplode, (fn. 40) elected 1328

John de Swaftham, (fn. 41) elected 1349

Geoffrey de Warham, (fn. 42) elected 1367

Nicholas de Butle, (fn. 43) elected 1373

Peter Bisshop, (fn. 44) resigned 1382

Nicholas de Buttele, (fn. 45) elected 1382

John de Acre, (fn. 46) elected 1390

John de Watlyngton, (fn. 47) elected 1414

John de West Acre, (fn. 48) elected 1417

John Fakenham, (fn. 49) elected 1450

John Cosin, (fn. 50) elected 1460

Richard Palle, (fn. 51) elected 1466

Richard Clark, (fn. 52) elected 1491

William Sowthe, (fn. 53) elected 1520

William Wingfield, (fn. 54) occurs 1526, last prior

Of the first seal, late eleventh century (21/8 in. × 21/8 in.), there is a very imperfect impression, showing the seated Virgin. Legend:—

. . . . . DE: WEST. ACRIA (fn. 55)

The second seal, thirteenth century (3½ in. × 21 in.), is a fine pointed oval example of a most unusual design.

Obverse.—The Holy Trinity, in a niche upheld between the emblems of the four evangelists; below is the Virgin seated with the Holy Child standing on a bench to her left, and her feet upon a dragon. On the left side, in a smaller niche, is a priest, and on the right side, in a like niche, an armed knight. Legend:—


Reverse.—A small pointed oval counter-seal, with the impression of an antique intaglio of an imperial bust; above the gem, an estoile, below a crescent. Legend:—



  • 1. The charter is given by Dugdale; it was then (1638) 'penes H. Spelman.'
  • 2. Anct. D. A 2907.
  • 3. Fin. Rot. Norf. 10 Ric. I, 183.
  • 4. Cal. of Pat. 34 Edw. I, m. 40.
  • 5. Ibid. 6 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 15.
  • 6. Pat. 9 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 31.
  • 7. Ibid. 13 Edw. II, m. 8.
  • 8. Cal. of Pat. 12 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 3.
  • 9. Pat. 17 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 5.
  • 10. Blomefield, ix, 160.
  • 11. Pat. 19 Edw. IV, m. 23.
  • 12. Cam. Univ. Lib. Dd. viii, 42.
  • 13. Cott. MS. Nero D. ii, fol. 232.
  • 14. Cal. of Close, 4 Edw. II, m. 15d.
  • 15. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Camd. Soc.), 49-51.
  • 16. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Gamd. Soc.), 101-6.
  • 17. Ibid. 164-6.
  • 18. Ibid. 249-51.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Dep. Keeper's Rep. vii, App. 2, p. 364.
  • 21. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 808. The Norfolk comperta are in Ap Rice's handwriting.
  • 22. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 143.
  • 23. Ibid. xi, 235 (4).
  • 24. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (i), 28, 29, 34, 35, 85, 86, 101, 102; Abbot Gasquet, Hen. VIII and the Engl. Mon. i, 349-52.
  • 25. V. C. H. Northants. ii.
  • 26. Writers who have approached this subject from such different standpoints as Mr. James Gairdner, Canon Dixon, Abbot Gasquet, and Dr. Jessopp, are equally severe in their judgments on the compilers of the comperta of 1535-6. Dr. Jessopp, in his preface to the Norw. Visit. of the Camd. Soc. (xii, xiii), writes:—'They called themselves visitors; they were in effect mere hired detectives of the very vilest stamp, who came to levy blackmail, and if possible find some excuse for their robbery by vilifying their victims. . . . The comperta of 1535-6 can only be received as the horrible inventions of the miserable.'
  • 27. Dugdale, Bar. vi, 576.
  • 28. Anct. D. (P.R.O.), A 2907.
  • 29. Blomefield, Hist. Norf. ix, 160.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Anct. D. (P.R.O.), A 287.
  • 33. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. ix, 160.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Assize R. 580, m. 47.
  • 37. Ibid. 1282, m. 20.
  • 38. Norw. Epis. Reg. i.
  • 39. Ibid. i, 102.
  • 40. Ibid. ii, 21.
  • 41. Ibid. iv, 98.
  • 42. Ibid. v, 74.
  • 43. Ibid. vi, 19.
  • 44. Ibid. 87.
  • 45. Ibid.
  • 46. Ibid. 151.
  • 47. Ibid. vii, 89.
  • 48. Ibid. viii, 24.
  • 49. Ibid. xi, 24.
  • 50. Ibid. 119.
  • 51. Ibid. 159.
  • 52. Ibid. xii, 149.
  • 53. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. 164.
  • 54. Ibid. 249.
  • 55. Add. MSS. 23021; Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. ix, 160.
  • 56. B.M. lxix, 57, 58; Vet. Mon. i, pl. 60; Dugdale, Mon. vi, 576; Ackn. of Supr. (P.R.O.), 117.