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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

Priory church of St Mary, Castle Acre

the great west front with the prior's house beside it

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
view from the south the upper window is later west doorway       

    Priory church of St Mary, Castle Acre
into the church   Norman dukes must have rubbed their hands with joy when their earthly rewards for supporting the conquest included land in Norfolk and Suffolk. Not only was the land profitable, with a high population, there was general support for the Norman hegemony, and the new masters could put up their feet safe in the knowledge that their serfs were toeing the New line. Not like that rebellious lot over the border in Cambridgeshire.

William de Warenne, the new Earl of Surrey, was also pleased to receive Lewes, Conisborough and Acre as part of his windfall, and brought monks from the abbey at Cluny to set up a priory at Lewes. When this thrived, it spawned a daughter house here at Castle Acre. in 1079, the priory opened on the bank of the River Nar, while work was proceeding apace on de Warenne's new country mansion on the top of the hill, which would become the castle.

Considering that the Priory was never intended to be home to more than 30 monks, the church is massive, and easily readable from what remains. The vast west front is the most familiar aspect, dating from the 1160s, although the massive window punched into the top is from perhaps a century later. The two western towers must have been massive judging by what survives of the southern one.

The church is cruciform, with two large chapels flanking the long chancel. Presumably one was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but that on the north side may have held the priory's most famous relic, the arm of St Philip.

The glory of Castle Acre is not so much the church (though it is breathtaking) but that so many of the other conventual buildings survive, often in recognisable form, sometimes up to two stories high. These include the almost complete Prior's House, which has its own chapel. This isn't the place for a tour of the whole site, but there are photographs of some of the other buildings below.

In 1373, the Priory was removed from the influence of Cluny along with other such 'alien' priories, and this might have guaranteed the survival of the priory church in parochial form had it not been for the fact that the Surreys built the massive church of St James halfway between the castle and the priory.

Along with the other monasteries of England and Wales, Castle Acre had all its lands and possessions stolen by the crown in the 1530s and squandered on pointless wars with France. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk was granted possession. It then passed through the hands of several landed families, its assets being stripped along the way, until Edward Coke of Holkham Hall bought it and added it to the vast estates that his agricultural revolution would bring to the fore. The Cokes, or the Earls of Leicester as they became, still own the Priory, but it has been in the care of the State since 1927.

Simon Knott, May 2005

   

the south west tower from the north-east the crossing looking west chapel of St Philip 
Loch Ness monster south transept looking north-east from the crossing towards St James dorter
from the ruins to the church infirmary chapel guest house fish pond and mill on the Nar
one of the best preserved ruins in England the redorter and latrines prior's view of the west front          

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk