North Walsham & District Community Archive

Short History of Bromholm Priory, Bacton, Norfolk

Bromholm Priory booklet - 1911




In this present age, when thinking people are turning attention to the traditions of the past as a great help to our artistic sense, special note may well be made of the architectural beauty of the ruins of old priories and other religious houses scattered about England, amongst which Bromholm Priory holds high place, both from an historical as well as an architectural standpoint.
From a survey of these old ruins one gathers what a vast amount of unselfish zeal was put into the work of these old master builders, and one feels how these sanctuaries must have helped those who lived under their shadow towards a greater reverence for holy things—a reverence sadly lacking in many places now.
This little book, written to assist the visitor to an interesting examination of the ruins, is divided into two parts. The first treats of the architectural features, and the second of the historical records relating to this most interesting old priory.

The present remains of this famous priory are the great gateway of entrance, a considerable portion of the church, part of what is believed to have been the kitchen of the monastery, and other indications of domestic offices and lodgings. The oldest portion of these is the fragment standing apart from the rest of the ruins and which formed the north transept of the church.
This portion, together with nave, is of the close of the twelfth century, when the massive Norman was gradually merging into the more slender and elegant proportions of Early English. The west front of the choir and the conventual buildings are of a later date—perhaps erected when an addition was made to the fame and revenues of the house by the acquisition of the Holy Cross (of which more will be written in the historical section of this little work).
The principal gate stands to the north. Another gate of smaller dimension, the arch of which has collapsed, stands over the moat.
The whole style of the interior of the church, though Norman, is undoubtedly late Norman. The exterior of the building does not at all prepare the visitor for the light and beautiful proportions of the interior, which shows marks of a Transitional character.
The complete destruction of the walls in many places makes it somewhat difficult to trace out the arrangement of the other parts of the monastery.
Benedictine Priories, such as this, being, however, arranged much on the same plan, a survey of other priories where the buildings are perfect materially assists in arriving at a more or less complete notion of the pile as originally erected.
Much important information respecting the arrangements of these monastic buildings may also be gathered from the writings of the old chroniclers. They help us much in identifying the various buildings. Again, the plans assist considerably towards the understanding of the narratives of the chroniclers. In this connection one calls to mind the excellent account by Mr. Stanley of the death of Becket which first appeared in the Quarterly Review, and has since been published in a separate form.
By following the course of his history with the plan of the Convent and Church of Canterbury before him, the reader is able to understand with most astonishing clearness the details of that remarkable event.
Many little points which were puzzling and threw doubt upon the tale of the death of Becket, and statements made by the chroniclers, are all explained by a knowledge of the plan of the building.
Another instance of the aid a well-designed plan gives to the better understanding of the arrangements of these conventual houses is emphasized by reading Ingulphus's account of the destruction of Croyland Abbey by fire with a plan of Castle Acre. The reader may almost imagine the latter place to have been the scene of the destruction he describes.
Aided by a plan made in the year 1822, and annexed hereto, it is possible to trace a cruciform church, the nave extending westward from the cross aisle, about 115 feet and 50 feet across ; the cross aisle, or transept, being 90 feet from north to south.
An examination of the fragment remaining against the east wall of the north transept makes it abundantly clear that considerable enlargement took place in the early part of the thirteenth century, for not only is that portion later in style than the wall it abuts upon, but it does not range with the walls of the transept as seen in the plan. Probably the handsome chapter-house and dormitory beyond it were built at the same time.
The original cloister was small, and, notwithstanding the extension of the dormitory southwards, the site of the refectory was not changed.   Its position was on the south
too zoo feet side of the cloister, only the east end of it remaining above the soil. With the increased prosperity of the house it was extended westward.
A narrow building called a " slype," of no great height, was placed between the church and chapter-house. Similar buildings, or slypes, are found at Norwich—where it led to the priors' apartments—and at other places. At Thet-ford, in the same spot, is the narrow space ; but there it had an upper floor, to which a newel staircase led, and it had no other entrance than from the transept.
The remaining portion of the chapter-house is extremely picturesque, and the arches north and south well identify it with the period of the acquisition of the Holy Cross, of which more hereafter.
The east end is more modern, probably of John de Tytleshall's time.
The illustration given on page 7 shows the interior of this fine old chapter-house.
Beyond this modern east end probably lies the cemetery of the monks. There are slight indications in the east wall of the vaulted apartment under the dormitory of a door leading into the-cemetery. The dormitory itself was of considerable size—viz., 90 feet by 22 feet—vaulted beneath and lighted by a range of windows in the east wall. The windows were of the usual small size, and bring to mind a passage in the life of Abbot Sampson of Bury as related by Jocelin.
Jocelin tells how the reverend Abbot, being in one of the manor-houses of that abbey, narrowly escaped death by fire, the only door to the upper story being locked and the windows too narrow to admit of escape that way, although the Abbot was rather spare of body—for an Abbot.
At the south-west corner of the west end of the church a wall extending 20 feet westward has the lower portion of a two-light window remaining in the upper story. It stands in the same position as the chapel at Castle Acre ; but the entrance to the convent does not appear to have been beneath it, as at Castle Acre. These are all the fragments of important buildings erected immediately after the acquisition of the Holy Cross.
From time to time the buildings of Bromholm Priory were modified by the munificence of donors. Thus we read of the great patronage bestowed on the abbey by the Paston family. Prior John de Tytleshall wrote to Sir John Paston, 1460, asking for money and again for timber— eight principal beams for his dormitory, each beam to be 11 yards long.
About this time a fireplace was placed in the vaulted room beneath the dormitory, the supposition being that this was the calefactory of the monks, the place where they sat in winter.
It is thought that Prior Tytleshall made the curious passage referred to earlier in this account. In most places a passage near this spot led to an infirmary, where diseased monks were isolated.
To this Prior's time may be attributed the enlargement and raising the arch of the gate-house. The piers on each side are Transition Norman to Early English, and the capital appears on the side next the street. From that point the stone-work is again carried up perpendicular for some height, and then a depressed perpendicular arch spanned the road. This probably, like the Binham gatehouse, had a prison for delinquents.

Bromholm, or, as it is sometimes called, Baketon Priory, being situate in the parish of Bacton, was founded by William de Glanville in a.d. 1113 as a priory for seven or eight Cluniac monks from the Priory of Castle Acre, to which Bromholm formed a cell.
The priory church was dedicated to St. Andrew, probably on account of its nearness to the sea, which rolls on in full view from the priory.
The founder's eldest son, Bartholomew de Glanville, confirmed the grant his father had made to Bromholm, and added considerably to it. Among these additional grants may be mentioned the land of Stanard the priest and the church of Casewic, Bromholm, the church of Dilham, the tithe of the lordship of Baketon, and two parts of the tithe of Stainges, Horham, Alreton, Rango, and Brig, also of Sneseling, with the whole of the tithe of his mills in Baketon and Wilefoot (Walcot), two parts of the tithe of Honing, and one mill at Mansele (? Mundesley) in demesne, with the land of Herfrid the priest and part of his wood in the mill way to Takegate ; two parts of the tithes of various homages and tenants; the tithe of the pannage (swine's food in the woods) of Bacton and Botham, and two parts of the right of turbage (the right of the turf) or turbary of Swathefield (? Swafield).
Bartholomew, moreover, bequeathed to the priory after his death Gristcombe and all he possessed in the fields there with his villains, to be free of all customs except Danegeld. He also gave the monks of Bromholm Priory the church of Paston with its appurtenances, with all his wood and land there, also his land at Guneho, Briges, Aldehithe, and Lawceland and of Edith de Briges, thirty acres by the sea, a meadow at Brescholm, a marsh near Bromholm, ten other acres by the sea, and the tithe of Richard the priest of Backettinia, all given in honour of God, the Virgin Mary, and St. Andrew, for the health of his own soul, his father's, and the souls of all his friends living and dead.
Stephen, Earl of Moreton and Count of Boulogne, afterwards King of England, becoming possessed of the lands of Robert Malet of Norfolk, and amongst them of the manor of Bromholm, as superior lord confirmed the donation which William de Glanville had made to the monks.
Henry I. was also a benefactor of the priory, for he gave the Manor of Burgh free to the convent, reserving the advowson to the Crown, and the dower of Alice, widow of Roger de Burge, for her life. In consideration of this royal bounty the monks released to the King a rent-charge of 5 marks a year from their exchequer which the King had granted.
Other donors of this period were Sarah, widow of Joceline de Burge, who gave 8s. 8d. rent in Yarmouth ; John de Annok and Milisentia, his wife, gave certain buildings in Yarmouth ; Agnes de Rollerby gave an annual rent-charge of 18s. 8d.; Elstan Kemp gave 4d. in Lodowyestoft, or Lowestoft; Walter de Blundeston gave Lambcote and a marsh there ; Richard, the son of Ralph de Paston, gave i2d. rent in Paston ; Gilbert, son of Nicholas de Repps, gave i2d. rent in Reppe.
The foregoing benefactions appear to have been confirmed by Henry I. when he visited the convent with his mother and the whole Court and spent some time there (1233).
At this visit Henry granted the monks many additional privileges, including a fair to be held at Bromholm on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and two days after, and a weekly market on Mondays. . It may be well at this point to give the quaint history of the Holy Cross of Bromholm, as it was by the acquisition of this valuable relic that the greatest profit accrued to the monastery.
Matthew of Paris gives a particular and most delightful account of how the monks of Bromholm became possessed of the relic.
The substance is that Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was from a Count made Emperor of Constantinople, at which place he reigned with vigour for many years.   It happened that at one time he was dreadfully harassed by infidel kings, against whom he marched without deliberation, and on this occasion neglected to take with him the Cross of our Lord and other relics, which were always carried before him by the Patriarchs and Bishops whenever he did battle with the enemies of the Cross. This carelessness cost him dear, for when he charged the enemy with his small army, paying no regard to the multitude of the foe, which exceeded his own followers by tenfold, he and his men were surrounded by the enemies of the Cross and slain or made prisoners. The few who escaped knew nothing of what happened to the Emperor, or whither he had gone. A certain chaplain of English extraction who, with his clerks, performed Divine Service in the Emperor's chapel, had charge of the Emperor's relics, rings, and other effects. When this chaplain heard of his lord's death (for all said he was dead), he left the city of Constantinople privately with all the Emperor's effects, and came to England. On his arrival here he went to St. Albans and sold to a certain monk there a cross set in silver and gold, two fingers of St. Margaret, and some gold rings and jewels, all of which are now held in great veneration by the monks of St. Albans.
The chaplain then drew from his mantle a wooden cross, and showed it to some of the monks, averring on his oath that it was a genuine piece of the true Cross on which Christ suffered. His assertion being disbelieved by them, he departed with his priceless treasure. This chaplain had two children, about whose support and preservation he was most anxious. He offered the Cross to several monasteries. Having endured repulse from the rich in many places, he at length came to a chapel called Bromholm, very poor at that time and destitute of proper buildings. There he sent for the Prior and some of the brethren, and showed them the cross, which was constructed of two pieces of wood placed across one another, and almost as wide as a man's hand. The chaplain implored the brethren to receive him into the monastery and their order with this cross and other relics which he had with him, as well as his two young children.
The prior and brethren were delighted to possess such a treasure, and by the intervention of the Lord, who always protects honourable poverty, put faith in the words of the monk, and with due reverence received the Cross of our Lord, and carried it into the oratory, and with all devotion preserved it in the most honourable place there ; and immediately Divine miracles began to be wrought in that monastery to the praise and glory of the life-giving Cross ; for the dead were restored to life, the blind recovered sight, and the lame walked, the skin of lepers was cleansed, and those possessed of devils were released from them, and any sick who approached the Cross were made whole.
A great concourse of persons came from distant countries to reverence it, and the monastery became abundantly rich by reason of the gifts and offerings made to it by these pilgrims. Piers Ploughman alludes to the pilgrimages made to it in his vision :

"But wender to Walsingham, and my wif Alis And byd the Roode of Bromholm bring me out of dette."

Capgrave says "that no fewer than thirty-nine persons were raised from the dead and nineteen blind were restored to sight by the virtues of the Cross of Bromholm."
Such were the circumstances of this acquisition and such the cause of the great prosperity of Bromholm.
There appears to have been some dispute between the monks of Bromholm and Castle Acre. The Priory of Castle Acre claimed overlordship on Bromholm, which was, as above stated, at first only a cell of Castle Acre. At an early period it was agreed between the two convents that Bromholm should raise the rents of the fee-farm of Wilton, which they held of the monks of Castle Acre, ten shillings a year ; the monks of Castle Acre on their part were to remit and quit all other claims whatsoever which they had upon the monks of Bromholm in the form of " aids" and "recognitions."
Later, a controversy seems to have arisen between the Priors of Lewes and Acre and the Prior of Bromholm as to the choice of a Prior for the latter in succession, and Pope Gregory XI., in 1229, decreed that the matter should be adjusted by the Abbot of Osolveston and the Deans of Stamford and Rutland. These decided that the Prior of Acre should nominate six monks, three of Acre and three of Bromholm, out of whom the Monastery of Bromholm should choose one for its Prior.
We read also that Edward I. visited Bromholm. These kingly visits were expensive affairs, and were often made in search of ready money.
After some years of negotiation, Pope Celestine, by a bull dated in the fourth year of his pontificate, 1298, granted complete emancipation of Bromholm from Acre.
After this but little information can be gathered respecting the Monastery of Bromholm, except of acquisitions of property in various places. The records of these gifts are faithfully recorded in the chartulary of the house, which may still be seen in good condition in the Public Library at Cambridge.
The Paston family, before referred to, were great patrons of the priory—one of them, Richard, son of Ralph, giving i2d. annually for repairs.
In 1466 Sir John de Paston died in London in the midst of his fruitless efforts to recover Caistor from the Duke of Norfolk, who had scandalously seized upon it. His body was brought to Bromholm for interment. The expenses of his interment is recorded in a quaint roll of accounts penned by Blomfield. The author of the " History of Caistor Castle " gives a very interesting sketch of the information contained in the roll, thus :
" For three days one man was engaged flaying beasts. Provision was made for 13 barrels of beer, 27 ditto of ale, one barrel of beer of the great assyze [no doubt extra strong], a runlet of wine of 15 gallons."
This amount of liquor did not seem sufficient, for we read of five coombs of malt at one time and ten at another being brewed up for the great occasion. Meat, too, was in proportion to the drink ; there were huge supplies of geese, chickens, capons, 1,300 eggs, 20 gallons of milk, •8 of cream, 41 pigs, 49 calves, 10 neat slain. What a picture of festivity the abbey presented one can well imagine! bread seemed to be at a discount, for it apparently bears the same proportion to the meat as Falstaff's halfpennyworth did to his inordinate quantity of sack. Many pounds of wax were made into candles to burn over the grave, and no less than ^20 in gold—a very large sum in those days—was changed into small coins for showering among the attendant throng, and 26 marks in copper being used for the same purpose in London. A barber was occupied five days in smartening up the monks, and the " reke of the torches at the dirge "was so dense that two panes had to be broken to let the fumes escape.
Sir John appears to have been buried at the east end of the choir. The Prior had a " frogge of worstede," or cope, presented to him on the occasion, and the tomb was covered with cloth of gold.
Then came the Dissolution of Monasteries in 1535, to satisfy Henry VIII.'s greed and lust of power, when the destroyer's hand was ruthlessly laid on so much that was beautiful and artistic and helpful in the religious life. True, corruption had crept in, but the pruning process, it is admitted on all hands, was carried out too severely and unintelligently. At the Dissolution the net income was placed at ^100 5s. 3|d. per annum—a very large sum indeed in those days.
On June 5, 1547, the King granted the site of this house, with the manor lands, appropriated rectory, and patronage of the vicarage to Thomas Wodehouse, Esq. This grant is thus shortly noticed in the fee.
Farm-Roll of the County of Norfolk remaining in the Augmentation Office. Seal and Arms of the Monastery or Priory of Bromholm.
" The seal of the Prior," say the continuator of Blom-tield, " is round and large, and about 3 inches in diameter of red ware, the impress being the west end of the church. Under an arch in the centre is the figure of St. Andrew, seated, a glory round his head and a cross in his elevated right hand, supposed to represent the cross or rood of the priory. Above, in the arch, is the bust of the Virgin, with the infant Jesus in her arms." The legend, " Sigillum Prioris et conventus Sci. Andree De Bromhold."
Arms of Bromhold Priory, Tanner and Edmonson give these—viz., " Arg., a cross voided sable, coticed of the last, all within a cordure, or."
Blomfield says : " Arg., a cross, gu. upon pedestal of 3 steps with a greater and less transverse at top."
Le Neve, in his manuscript, says : " Arg., a cross, sable fimbriated or, upon a pedestal of one step within a cordure or."
As stated above, the convent was granted to Sir Thomas Wodehouse, of Waxham, and the buildings shared the usual fate, becoming the quarry of the neighbourhood.
A plate of it, by Buck, made in 1738, shows the north transept used as a dove-cote. At that time the chapterhouse was fairly perfect and a part of the west end of the church remained as high as the clerestory.
Such is, as far as can be traced, the history of the monastery, which it is hoped will lead many to visit the interesting old ruin, and do what in them lies to preserve from further decay the work of ages when men's hearts burned with the religious fervour, happily, though slowly, reviving in this present age. Every year serves to dispel the absurd notion that the examination and preservation of these old religious houses will foster or create a desire to return to forms of superstitious usage. But as Bishop Stanley so elegantly puts it: " We do not dream of retracing our steps to carry back humanity to the darker periods of history ; we seek to glean from them all that is good, and to go forward with a swifter, firmer foot."
The great object aimed at in the study of these ancient monuments is to cultivate and perpetuate the good taste and love of the artistic and beautiful so generously exhibited by them, and to stimulate the imagination of the present age and give landmarks clearly for future guidance.
An examination of these delightful old piles reveals to him who reads aright a rich vein of exemplary devotion (though often encrusted by superstition) which we of this present age are tardily beginning to appreciate.


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  • Bromholm Priory, Bacton, Norfolk. 1911 booklet. Cover.
  • Bromholm Priory, Bacton, Norfolk. 1911 booklet. Back Cover.