Norton Priory: The Most Excavated Monastic Site in Europe
Norton Priory is a former Augustinian abbey located in Cheshire, England. Established in the 12th century, it was originally meant to house a community of Augustinian canons. During the 14th century, Norton Priory was raised to the status of an abbey. In the 16th century, however, Norton Priory was forced to close, as a result of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the centuries that followed, the site of the former abbey was owned by the Brooke family. Eventually, the site was given in trust for the use of the general public. Excavations were carried out at the site, giving it a new lease of life when it was turned into a tourist attraction.
Norton Priory has changed in appearance throughout its history. In the 1700s the Tudor house was demolished and replaced by a Georgian-style house. (Public domain)
The Origins of an Augustinian Abbey: Norton Priory
Norton Priory was founded in 1133 by William Fitznigel, the Baron of Halton, for a community of Augustinian canons. The priory was located in Norton, in the town on Runcorn, Cheshire. In 1391, the priory was raised to the status of an abbey. In 1536, however, the abbey was forced to close, and within a decade, was sold to the Brooke family. After Norton Priory was purchased by Sir Richard Brooke, a Tudor manor house, which became known as Norton Hall, was built. Part of the former abbey was incorporated into the new structure.
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Norton Priory ruins. (Public Domain)
The Tudor manor house was demolished during the 18th century, and replaced by a Georgian one. At this point of time, the site of Norton Priory was still owned by the Brooke family. As a matter of fact, ownership of Norton Priory remained in the hands of the Brooke family until 1966. In 1921, however, the Brooke family left their manor house at Norton Priory, and seven years later, the building was almost completely demolished. In 1966, Norton Abbey was given in trust by Sir Richard Brooke to the Runcorn Development Corporation for the use of the general public.
Excavations at Norton Priory uncovered many stone coffins and thirty coffin lids, twelve of which were carved and now on display in the museum. (Public domain)
Excavations at the Neglected Norton Priory
By that time, the site was in a considerable state of neglect, and very little of the former abbey was visible. Therefore, it was decided to have the ruins of the medieval abbey excavated, so that the the site could be visited by the public. The excavations began in 1970 under Patrick Greene, and continued until 1987. Interestingly, the excavation of the site was carried out as a community project, and involved local volunteers as well as prisoners.
Some have gone so far as to claim that Norton Abbey is the “most excavated monastic site in Europe.” As result of the excavations, the main buildings of Norton Priory have been explored in great detail. Additionally, a great amount of information about the site was obtained, whilst the remaining foundations were laid out, and consolidated for public display.
Based on archaeological and historical research, it is known that Norton Priory was surrounded by a moat. Within the grounds of the abbey were a variety of buildings, including an abbey church, a refectory, kitchens, the abbot’s lodgings, a tile kiln, and a monastic cemetery. The abbey church, for instance, is located on the north side of the site, and was built around 1135. The excavations revealed that over the centuries, there were six phases of construction and modification.
Additionally, it was found that the abbey church was 86 meters (262 ft) long, and that it was constructed using local sandstone with ashlar facing blocks and rubble cored walls. Although much of the structure has been destroyed, some of its floor levels have survived, including the 14th century floor tiles, and the 15th century tiled floor in the choir. Apart from that, a number of stone coffins, as well as many burials, were found within the structure.
Model of the abbey as it is thought it would have appeared in the 16th century. (Public Domain)
Feedback Helps Provide New Direction for Norton Priory Museum
In 1975, five years after the excavations at Norton Priory began, the Norton Priory Museum Trust was established. Seven years later, in 1982, a museum was built at the site, and English Heritage was approached for funding. The museum was aimed at providing “an educational and recreational resource for the local community.” In order to capture the attention of the public, the trust also commissioned Oxford Archaeology North to carry out the analysis and interpretation of the data obtained from the excavations. This culminated in the publication of Norton Priory: monastery to museum. Excavations 1970-87 in 2008.
In the summer of 2016, the museum was reopened after a major program of redevelopment and expansion. The architecture of the new museum has been praised for its capacity to exhibit more finds than its predecessor, around four times more, according to a review in Current Archaeology. The new museum also showcased the finds form the sites various periods, rather than focus solely on its medieval past.
This approach was implemented as a result of the feedback received from the public consultation conducted during the redevelopment program. Thus, in addition to medieval artefacts, the museum also contains artefacts from the centuries when Norton Priory was owned by the Brooke family, and some of the objects used during the excavation of the site.
The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens is opened all year round, though during the low season, the Walled Garden is closed. The opening hours of the site also differs between the main season and the low season. There is an entrance fee to the site.
Top image: Norton Priory encapsulates 900 years of history. Source: Norton Priory Museum Trust Ltd
By Wu Mingren
Archaeology Data Service. 2011. “The Augustinian Priory of St Mary, Norton Priory, Runcorn, Cheshire” in Archaeology Data Service. Available at: https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/nortonpriory_eh_2011/index.cfm
Historic England. 2021. “Augustinian Abbey known as Norton Priory” in Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1015603
Marchini, L. 2017. “Review: Norton Priory” in Current Archaeology. Available at: https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/review-norton-priory.htm
Norton Priory Museum Trust Ltd. 2021. Norton Priory Museum and Gardens. Available at: https://www.nortonpriory.org/
Visit Cheshire. 2021. “Norton Priory Museum & Gardens” in Chester, Cheshire & Beyond. Available at: https://www.visitcheshire.com/things-to-do/norton-priory-museum-and-gardens-p29941