Castle Acre Priory, Rievaulx Abbey, St. Peter’s of Northampton and Stewkley

Castle Acre Priory, in Norfolk, another invaluable relic of the Early Normans, forms a direct contrast to Barfreston in magnitude, grandeur, and wealth. It was founded in or before 1085, by the first Earl Warren and Surrey, whose favourite residence, of all the one hundred and forty lordships that he received from his father-in-law the Conqueror, was at the Castle here. The French monks of Cluni were first introduced into England by this Earl, at the time when foreign priests were overrunning the land, until “neither governor, bishop, nor abbot remained therein of the English nation.” At first, Castle Acre Priory was a mere cell to the Cluniac Abbey of Lewes in Sussex, and the rapidity of its growth to an establishment of the first class is rather a remarkable instance of the liberal piety of the stern warriors of old-time. The first, second, and third Earls Warren,—then their successors of the Plantagenet blood, the earls of Warren and Surrey—and lastly, the Fitzalans, Earls of Arundel and Surrey, successively extended the endowments, until in 1283 we find the prior in possession of “four hundred and sixty acres of arable land, twenty of pasture, ten of meadow, five water-mills, and fishing liberty ‘in pure alms,’ besides other lands held by thirty-six tenants, a court baron, two folds, two free boars, and two bulls,” while subordinate to Castle Acre were four cells, an hospital, and a priory. A lofty stone wall enclosed this stately establishment, which occupied twenty-nine acres. The arrangement of the interior can be distinctly ascertained, and this is a peculiarity that lends much interest to Castle Acre, of which we shall avail ourselves to give some definite notion of the place in its palmy days, as an illustration of the sort of life led in the larger monasteries of the middle ages, and the accommodations they provided. There were four principal divisions:—the Church, the Cloister, the Prior’s Lodge, and the detached offices. A great part of the beautiful west front of the church remains, picturesquely broken. (Fig. 720.) Each side the great entrance was a tower; there was also a central tower, of which the only remain is a tall irregular mass of rocky flint masonry. The pious brethren celebrated two solemn masses daily in the church. A small chapel was attached to each transept, for the use perhaps of the lordly patrons. The Almonry and Sacristy adjoined the north transept, walled from it, and three points seem to have been especially consulted —convenient nearness to the church, remoteness from the more private parts of the monastery, and easy access to the public entrance. The Almonry was for the entertainment of poor mendicants, against whom its doors were never closed. The Cloister was a square of above one hundred feet, separated by a wall from the cemetery. Fancy can readily conjure up the silent solemn figures of the black monks pacing these dim arched walks with breviary in hand, meditating, or muttering their Latin prayers; or gliding one by one into the Chapter House that stood east of the cloister— some, perhaps, with the not very agreeable expectation of reproof, or even severe punishment, for some point of discipline neglected, or serious fault committed—and there entering each into his separate cell; and as we can trace eighteen cells on either side, we perceive thirty-six to be the number of inhabitants of the house. The prior and sub-prior occupied distinct stalls at the upper end. Here, as we have intimated, public confession of faults was made and correction administered; for the Cluniac (which was the principal) branch of the Benedictines was exceedingly strict in all discipline. Here the prior consulted with the brethren on the affairs of the abbey, and here the young monks studied singing, being not only required to sing in the choir, but also to chant psalms during their work. Between the refectory and kitchen was a yard or garden for the admission of servants and lay brethren, and which formed their place of correction. The meals in the refectory were restricted to one daily, except at certain periods, when two were allowed, and nothing could be eaten on any pretext after evening service. The strictest silence was preserved, signs being substituted for speech. The staple food was bread and wine, and the remnants were immediately distributed to the poor in the almonry. The meal ended, the monks retired into the locutory or parlour, where conversation was allowed. In the dormitory every monk had his bed and his chest in a separate cell, opening into a common passage running through the centre. The scriptorium, for writing, copying, and illuminating manuscripts, and the library, adjoined the parlour; and in the same portion of the establishment were the hall and chambers for the novices, generally mere boys, sent hither for education.

It was to the foreign religious orders introduced into England, that we owe whatever intellectual improvement was imported at the Conquest, and none were more useful in that respect than the order of monks domiciled at Castle Acre. They were highly esteemed as learned and holy instructors. The pupils were kept apart from the monks, except in the refectory and parlour. The prior’s lodge is now a farm: a ladder long ago displaced a flight of stone steps leading up to the prior’s door, by which he was enabled to receive guests of quality, or visitors on. business, independent of the Convent. A stone basin for holy water under an arch we believe still remains outside the door, where those performed their ablutions who sought his venerable presence. Two richly storied windows lighted the fathers’ dining-room, which still retains the name, one an oriel of nine panels, on the glass of which was painted the arms of the priory, of the Earls Warren and Arundel, of Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and of England and France. The prior’s chapel adjoined, and the officiating priest and servants entered it by means of a narrow passage behind the prior’s bed-room, in order to avoid passing through his private apartments. He was always a foreigner, appointed by the houses of Cluni in France, so long as they exercised jurisdiction over the English houses of their order, and drew from them heavy tribute. In another of the prior’s rooms was the broken portraiture, on the glass of the window, of one of the Earls of Arundel, in armour, with a broadsword, and on his surcoat his arms and the remnant of a legend, “My trust ys”— The porter’s lodge is a very good specimen of the flint masonry of Henry VII., and it is a curious circumstance that all the arches, buttresses, and window-frames are of a very hard red brick, burned in the several shapes required. The detached offices consisted of an infirmary for the sick, gatehouse, stables for the monastery and for strangers, malthouse, brewhouse, millhouse, &c. There was also a little detached chapel placed with kind and prudent thoughtfulness where two highways meet, in order to incite the passing traveller to pray, and at the same time to intercept the casual offerings which might otherwise have been carried to some altar in the parish church farther on.

At the Reformation, Thomas Mailing, prior of Castle Acre, and ten of his monks, surrendered the whole to his highness Henry VIII., on account of “certain causes, them their souls and consciences especially moving.” The ruins have suffered as much from wanton and mercenary injuries, as from time and storms: almost every house and cottage in the village contiguous contains some undisguised evidence of the plunder of the priory. Still, the ruins are unusually ample and various. Wherever buildings have stood, walls or foundations remain, and prominences of the grass-grown soil mark the proportions and dimensions.

A finer situation for a monastic retreat could hardly be conceived, than that in which Rievauex Abbey has been placed. (Fig. 719.) Probably, as a father’s sorrow for his only child—a son, killed by a fall from his horse—was the occasion of the foundation of this abbey, so the choice of a site was influenced by the same feeling; which prompted Sir Walter L’Espee, the founder, to seek relief in the gentle influences of this beautiful scenery, where, in 1131, he allotted a “solitary place in Blakemore” to some Cistercian monks, sent by St. Bernard, abbot of Carival, a most devout man, into England. This “solitary place” was surrounded by steep hills covered with majestic woods. The angles of three valleys were near, with each a rivulet running through them, that passing by where the abbey was built, and being called Rie, the vale of this religious house was called Rieval, and the house the Abbey of Rieval or Rievaulx. William, one of the monks sent by St. Bernard, a man “of great virtue and excellent memory,” began the building of the abbey, which was endowed by Sir Walter L’Espee, who, since the loss of his son, caring no longer for wealth, devoted the greater part of his possessions to advance that blessed religion in which he found all his solace. The ruins themselves are noble, and prove the abbey to have been of great extent, but it is the fascinating scenery and the touching circumstances of its foundation that lend the greatest charm to Rievaulx Abbey.


Figure 735
735.—St. Peter’s, Northampton.

There is little to be said of St. Peter’s of Northampton; it is peculiarly one of those beautiful and antique architectural works that must be seen to be appreciated. Anything more curious in most of its details seldom offers. (Fig. 735.) Its situation near the Castle leads to the supposition that it owed its rise to one of the first Norman lords of Northampton, probably within fifty years after the Conquest. It was the privilege of this church, that a person “accused of any crime, and intending to clear himself by canonical purgation, should do it here, and in no other place of the town, having first performed his vigils and prayers in the said church the evening before.


Figure 734
734.—Stewkley Church, Buckinghamshire.

Stewkley Church is another of the fine old churches the era of whose erection is unknown. (Fig. 734.) Dr. Stukely mentions it as “the oldest and most entire he ever saw, undoubtedly before the Conquest, in the plain ancient manner,” &c. But the enthusiastic doctor was never at a loss for a bold decision, whatever he might be as to proofs on which to found it. The shape is a parallelogram, ninety feet by twenty-four. Half the length is allotted to the nave, and one fourth to the chancel, which is vaulted with stone. In the remaining space, two round arches support a square tower, whose upper part is surrounded with thirty-two small intersecting circular arches attached to the wall. The windows are small; the mouldings are decorated with zigzag sculpture. It stands in the large village of Stewkley, in Buckinghamshire. It is not unworthy of notice that Iffley Church, on the banks of the river Isis, about a mile and a half from Oxford, bears a marked resemblance to the church just mentioned, and belonged to or enjoyed the protection of the same monastery as that with which Stewkley was connected, —the Priory of Kenilworth. It will be a sufficient testimony of its antiquity to say it is known to have been in existence before 1189. (Fig. 724.) The old tower has a commanding aspect, and the sculpture on the western doorway, rude though it be, possesses greater charms for many an antiquary than works of infinitely greater beauty, in its allegorical character and in its astronomic insignia.