07 September 2021, The Tablet

The monastic mysteries that survive the mixed fortunes of Binham

The monastic mysteries that survive the mixed fortunes of Binham

Binham Priory
John Armagh/Creative Commons

In the early fourteenth century, the prior of Binham was accused of alchemy. This may or may not have been true, but it’s one of the rich ingredients that make the history of this diminutive Norfolk monastery such a heady mix. 

Home to a small community of Benedictine monks, Binham Priory was founded in around 1100 by Peter de Valoines, a Norman warrior who’d done very well from of the conquest of England. His conscience tainted by the blood shed during the subjugation of the English, his sin-stained soul at risk of everlasting damnation, de Valoines founded Binham for a compliment of no fewer than eight monks who were to pray in perpetuity for the salvation of his soul and those of his ancestors and descendants. Binham was established as a “cell”, or off-shoot, of St Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire, and the history of the two monasteries was intimately, and not always harmoniously, intertwined over the following four centuries. 

By c.1107 Binham’s church was sufficiently complete for the abbot of St Albans to celebrate Mass at its high altar. An idea of the grandeur of its architecture can be gleaned from the surviving seven bays of the nave, which served the local parish and therefore escaped destruction during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Its battered west front, built in the early 1240s, is a glory of English Gothic architecture, proving that Binham was no backwater. The great west window, bricked up since the early nineteenth century, originally held the earliest known use of bar tracery (decorative stonework used to support stained glass) in England, the scheme predating by several years the surviving windows at Westminster Abbey. In 2010, a search for medieval graffiti at Binham revealed the original designs for the west window, etched by its master mason eight centuries earlier into the piers of the nave. 

The architecturally precocious west front was completed during the time of Prior Richard de Parco (1227-44), whose able administration of Binham was praised by Matthew Paris, the chronicler monk of St Albans. But on more than one occasion, Binham and its priors raised the ire rather than the admiration of Matthew Paris and his brother St Albans monks. In 1210, Abbot John de Cella of St Albans exercised his authority over Binham and sacked its prior. This didn’t go down well with various local bigwigs who retaliated by besieging the priory, which was now under new management. The situation became so desperate that the monks were reduced to subsisting on bread made from bran and rainwater from the drains. The siege was only lifted when a furious King John dispatched soldiers to Binham. 

St Albans used Binham and its other dependent monasteries to exile or otherwise dispose of troublesome monks. These included one Alexander of Langley, who went insane at St Albans through a surfeit of book-learning. After being publicly berated and flogged in the St Albans chapter house, he was banished to Binham. Here the unfortunate Langley was greeted with an equal lack of compassion and was shackled and placed in solitary confinement. Indignity accompanied Langley to the grave, his corpse bound in chains when it was lowered into its earthly sepulchre in the priory’s cemetery. Such treatment suggests that the monks feared that Langley’s vengeful corpse might rise from its tomb as a revenant to haunt the community.

In 1290 the abbot of St Albans again intervened into Binham’s affairs, this time to depose Prior Robert of Waltham who was “gravely ill.” However, the abbot performed a hurried u-turn when a royal official demanded the payment of the legal fees that became due on the installation of a new monastic superior. In what was doubtlessly a face-saving exercise, the chronicle of St Albans asserted that Prior Thomas was miraculously restored to health and rendered fit again for high office thanks to the intervention of St Alban himself. 

More high drama soon followed. In 1317, William of Somerton was appointed as Binham’s prior. During a disastrous career spanning the best part of two decades, Somerton was accused of dabbling in alchemy, accrued a crushing £500 of debt and even resorted to selling Binham’s sacred silver and vestments. Attempts by the abbot of St Albans to remove him resulted in a protracted legal dispute that reached the papal and royal courts and at one point even involved the arrest and imprisonment of the entire Binham community.

But there’s much more to the priory’s history than scandal. Binham quickly recovered from its misadventures under Somerton and for much of the fourteenth century there were as many as thirteen monks at the monastery – a number of symbolic significance, recalling as it does Christ and His Apostles. The buildings of the priory were renovated and reshaped to accord with changes in architectural fashion. At least two of its priors were university graduates. Lay people continued to esteem the prayers of the monks. In 1508, one Richard Easingwold of Islip, Northamptonshire, was buried at Binham before the image of “maister John Shorne”. 

Shorne was the parish priest of North Marston, Buckinghamshire, where he died and was buried in 1313. His tomb there rapidly became a focus of popular veneration. This was partly because he was believed to have conjured the devil from a boot, his intercession therefore sought against gout. Although never officially canonised, his devotees included English kings and the presence of his painted image on three Norfolk rood screens testifies to his popularity in the county. 

Binham’s isn’t among them, but the surviving portion of the late medieval screen from the non-monastic parish church is vivid witness to the religious changes of the sixteenth century which ultimately saw England transformed from a Catholic country soaked in depictions of the sacred  into a Protestant state intolerant of religious imagery. The delicately rendered images of Christ and the saints that adorned the screen were whitewashed over and replaced with texts from the English translation of the Bible. Over the centuries, the whitewash and texts have faded and crumbled, revealing glimpses of the original painted imagery. Word and image now co-exit, enduring evidence of the beliefs that shaped 900 years of history at this captivating Norfolk monastery. 

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