Binham, in north Norfolk, is a small village full of the classic red brick and flint buildings that characterise the area. It is made remarkable by the remains of Binham Priory, a Benedictine foundation with a unique architectural history. The Priory is also notable for its well preserved medieval rood screen, and for its ghostly heritage.
The History Of Binham Priory
It is likely that there was a church here in Saxon times, but the Benedictine priory was founded in the late 11th century. It had a small monastic community and provided refuge for travellers. Pilgrims on their way to the nearby Walsingham Shrine would often stop here.
The monastery was closed in the 16th century, as a result of the Reformation. Most of the buildings were destroyed, but the western end of the nave was preserved as a parish church. It still functions as a church today.
Unique Architecture Of Binham Priory
Like many Norman churches and cathedrals, Binham Priory took a long time to build. Construction began around 1091 and was not completed until 1244, by which time architectural fashions had changed. Although most of the building is typically Norman in its design, the western wall – the last bit to be built – is in the later Gothic style.
Binham Priory is unique in that you can see the two different styles side by side. The West Window and the Gothic arches at the end of the nave are a striking contrast to the more rounded Romanesque arches elsewhere.
Early Bar Tracery
The West Window is the oldest surviving example of Gothic bar tracery anywhere in England. Bar tracery was a method of incorporating stone arches and curves into a window, so that it became strong enough to support the surrounding wall. This allowed windows to be much larger than previously, so that more light could enter the church.
Although the technique was still new when it was used at Binham, the window proved long-lasting. The lower part became unsafe in the 19th century, when it was bricked up, but the upper window still remains.
The Binham Rood Screen
Even without the architectural features, Binham Priory would be worth visiting for its medieval rood screen. This screen would historically have separated the chancel from the nave. It would have been part of an elaborate structure including a walkway, lamps and carvings, as well as a statue of Jesus on the Cross (“rood” means cross). Churches were obliged to remove the statues and carvings during the Reformation, and in many cases the screens were also lost or destroyed.
Binham is fortunate in still having four of the six original panels from its rood screen. As was common with ornate items of church furnishings, these were whitewashed and covered with religious texts during the Reformation. However, the whitewash has begun to fade, and the original paintings of saints have started to show through.
Other Features Of The Priory Church
The church and its décor would have been much more elaborate in the Middle Ages. However, some features of interest remain. In particular, the 15th century font is known as a “seven sacrament” font. This is a style unique to churches in East Anglia, and refers to the carvings around the edge that illustrate the sacraments of the Church. (The font has eight sides: the eighth panel shows the baptism of Jesus.)
Also notable are the poppyhead bench ends. These are the intricately wooden carved figures that started to appear at the ends of the pews in the late middle ages. The Binham benchends represent people, animals and flowers, with a mixture of religious and secular images.
A Ghost… And A Secret Tunnel
Like all good ruins, Binham Priory has its own ghost story. For many years it was believed that there was a secret tunnel between the church and Walsingham. A black-hooded monk would emerge from the tunnel each night to haunt the ruins of the Priory.
A twist to the legend occurred when a visiting fiddler volunteered to walk the tunnel at night in search of the monk. He walked with his dog, playing the fiddle as he went. Above ground, the villagers followed the sound of his music until it mysteriously stopped at Fiddler’s Hill, an ancient burial mound. That night a violent storm destroyed the entrance to the tunnel, and neither the fiddler nor his dog were ever seen again…
Visiting Binham Priory
Binham Priory is maintained by English Heritage, but there is no entrance charge. The church itself is still in use and guided tours are available – see the website for details.
While visiting the Priory you may wish to take a short walk into the village. Here you can see the 15th century market cross, one of the best medieval crosses in Norfolk.