On the south side of the River Mersey stands the remains of the once wealthy monastery of Norton Priory. The Augustinian canons founded the site in 1134, having moved from a pre-existing one in Runcorn that had been deemed too small. After draining the land, they set about building a thick-walled stone Romanesque style church. They dug a large pond for their newly constructed corn mill and set up a rabbit warren for food.
The canons operated a ferry across the Mersey, as did Birkenhead Priory on the Wirral. The Norton canons were instrumental in the founding of Burscough Priory near Ormskirk and fellow canons from their Augustinian order set up Cockerham Priory on Lancashire’s windswept coast.
As the priory grew in wealth, so did the buildings. The early wooden structures were replaced by stone ones and the church extended. The canons built their own pottery kiln to fire the tiles for their church. Twenty different styles were created, many of them unique to the site. In total 40,000 tiles were made for the church’s floor.
In the 1200s, the chapter house was extended, with the original room becoming a mere vestibule to the new one. It was not all plain sailing though as in 1236 a fire started in the kitchens which spread to the cloister and church, causing a huge amount of damage. Undeterred, the canons soon had the kitchens rebuilt along with a gatehouse and new guest quarters.
In 1287, Whalley Abbey’s records tell of miracles occurring at Norton Priory. They state that a person had their sight restored and another had their speech returned. These events were attributed to the Holy Cross of Norton. This was probably part of the ‘true cross’, brought back by Geoffrey Dutton, a patron of the priory and participant in the Fifth Crusade to Jerusalem. His stone coffin still lies at the centre of the church today, a prominent position of burial fitting for someone who had donated a third of his lands to the monastery.
It was under the leadership of Richard Wyche, who became prior in 1366, that the monastery really grew wealthy. He persuaded the Dutton family to donate more land and had John of Gaunt (Baron of Halton, and uncle of King Richard II ) as a powerful patron. Wyche’s biggest achievement was to get the priory to be converted into an abbey in 1391. This included a permission from the pope for him to wear a mitre hat, normally only worn by bishops and not by abbots. Just four years later, Wyche was made president of the whole Augustinian order in Britain. The abbey was probably at the height of its powers at that time, with 15 canons and their attendant staff living there. At the time of the conversion a large statue of St Christopher was carved out of sandstone from nearby Windmill Hill quarry. It was twice life size and colourfully painted and still stands today at the site.
Building work continued into the 1400s with a new cloister and guest quarters constructed. The church was widened by addition of a north aisle with its own small chapel, giving space for more burials of wealthy benefactors. When flooding hit the site in 1429 and funds were needed for repairs, Pope Martin V granted indulgencies for those that donated. This meant that people who gave money would spend less time in purgatory after they died.
By the 1500s, serious trouble was on the horizon. When Sir Lawrence Dutton died without an heir his relative Sir Piers Dutton began a lengthy battle to claim the Dutton lands owned by Norton Abbey. A former mayor of Chester and knighted by Henry VIII, he was a powerful and ruthless figure. He concocted a lie that had the abbot, Thomas Birkenhead, arrested for forging coins and sent for trial in London. The abbot was acquitted, but this was not the end of his problems. Sir Piers became the Royal Commissioner for Cheshire, tasked with valuing the lands owned by the monasteries as a precursor to closing them down. He deliberately undervalued Norton land so that he could buy it cheaply once the monasteries were abolished. He also made sure that the abbey was one of the first to be closed. Not content with this, Sir Piers had the canons imprisoned in Halton Castle and tried to have them executed, but this was fortunately prevented. Thomas Birkenhead retired as abbot, was given a pension and left the Augustinian order. Sir Piers never got his coveted monastery land, dying ten years later.
When the abbey was closed in 1536, the church was demolished and the stone sold off. The land was bought by the Brooke family and they built a new country house there. They incorporated much of the abbey buildings into their home, including the undercroft, abbot’s tower, kitchens and guest quarters. However, not all the areas were treated respectfully – the cloister was used as a midden to dump waste food and household rubbish.
The Tudor house gave way to a later Georgian mansion, which had thirty bedrooms and a landscaped garden. The Brooke family continued to live at Norton through the Victorian age, leaving eventually in 1920. After the auctioning off of much of the contents, most of the mansion was knocked down. Fortunately, the Medieval undercroft that had been incorporated into the original Tudor house survived and still stands today.
In 1966, Sir Richard Brooke gave the site in trust to the public, and four years later Runcorn Development Corporation decided to utilise it for leisure and education. What followed was 18 years of archaeological digging, making it Europe’s most excavated monastery. Finds included 4,392 pieces of medieval pottery, thousand of floor tiles and 130 skeletons. Details of individual rooms were discovered. The kitchen features – fireplaces, bread ovens, stone water cisterns supplied by lead pipes and a stone drain to carry out the waste water – were all unearthed. The cloister’s original 11th century parts were found to have been used as rubble in the building of the later, grander one. The guest quarters had painted glass windows featuring lions, flowers and acorns. The bell foundary was discovered and in the bottom of the large pit were 200 fragments of the mould. This was reassembled and has been used to cast a replica bell.
Recently the site has received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop a large new museum and viewing area. A good selection of medieval artifacts are on display, many more than were in the previous museum. From the new viewing platform, the visitor is struck by the size of the site and how much of the foundations are still in place. Immediately obvious are the large number of stone coffins clustered in the Lady Chapel of the church, belonging to the wealthy benefactors. The foundations of the kitchen, chapter house, cloister and refectory are all clearly laid out.
The undercroft dating from the 12th century is still intact, having been used as a cellar for storing food and drink. Connected to this is the parlour, where important guests were greeted. You can still sit on the stone seating ledge as visitors would have once done, and admire each capital arch, every one of which is different.
In the museum some of the many medieval tiles from the church are on display, along with the actual kiln used to fire them. Also on show is the 1150 ferry charter, papal seals and medieval coffin lids from the stone graves. The history of the later house and its connections with the Civil War are also given space.
In the grounds there is a restored herb garden of eight beds that are stocked with a range of plants that would have been popular for their presumed curative properties: lungwort, self heal, lavender, rosemary, Lady’s bedstraw, yarrow, fennel and sage. Nearby stands the huge replica medieval bell hanging in a low brick belfry, which visitors can ring.
This is an excellent site, with a superb museum. For anyone with an interest in the Medieval times, it is a must.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
Access and Opening Times
April to October 10am – 5pm every day
November to March 10am – 4pm every day
See their website nortonpriory.org or click here
Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, Tom Hughes (2016). Current guide book available from the priory shop.
On site interpretation, both in the grounds and within the museum