THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES OF NORFOLK
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
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
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