Located between Fakenham and Wells-next-the-Sea (which is someway inland these days), the priory is Norfolk’s most complete monastic ruin. It was founded by Peter de Valognes, the nephew of William the Conqueror, in 1091. Peter did rather nicely from the Norman invasion and the land he donated to the monks at St Alban’s for a news cell in Norfolk was on land his uncle granted him.
During the reign of Henry I, the monks were granted a market charter and free warren of their lands – which basically meant that they could slaughter as much small game as they wished without irritating the monarch who, according to feudal principles, owned it all under terms of forest law.
Not everything went so smoothly according to Matthew Paris the prior, Thomas, was removed in 1200 by the abbot of St Albans which led to a long running dispute and a falling out with Robert FitzWalter who was the prior’s friend not to mention an important baron in East Anglia. FitzWalter, who would gain his place in the history books during the First Barons’ War claimed to have a charter giving him, and him alone, the right to hire and fire the prior – it was forged but you can’t blame a baron for trying! FitzWalter even besieged the priory and King John not known for his good relationship with the Church had to send an army to raise the siege.
The priory as it stands dates from between 1227- 1244. The west window tracery was the first in England to be formed from bars of stone enabling more glass and less stone to be employed. Excavations have revealed some of the magnificent medieval stained glass.
Inevitably by the time Cromwell sent his commissioners to pay a visit in 1536 there were a series of scandals, three incontinent monks out of a small band six, but it avoided suppression until 1539. A gentleman from the King’s privy chamber, Thomas Paxton, rented the manor which was worth £101 a year. Part of the priory church became Binham Parish Church. Among the survivals are two misericords and four panels from the chancel screen incorporating words from the approved 1539 Bible – Coverdale. The words have been painted over the top of the medieval saints and of Henry VI.
Incidentally if you want scandal, one of the priors, William de Somerton (1317-1355), sold off monastic land to fund his alchemy experiments. And if that’s not lively enough for you there are folktales of tunnels running from Binham to Walsingham – for which there is absolutely no evidence!