The Benedictine Monastery of Birkenhead Priory was built around 1158. Incredibly, despite a huge amount of industrial construction close to the site, remains still survive to this day. It was founded by Hamon de Massey, 2nd Baron of Dunham Massey in Cheshire. Unusually, he allowed the monks themselves to elect their own prior to be in charge, a right that the founder normally exercised. It was always a relatively small community, with between five to seven monks for much of its existence and with no more than sixteen members at its height.
The priory was sited on a headland between two tidal inlets – Wallasey Pool to the north and Tranmere Pool to the south. The monks ran the important ferry link from the Wirral peninsula to Lancashire. They also had rights to the shoreline which gave them access to fishing, collecting any valuable wreckage and an anchorage for boats.
Nearby land was granted to support the monastery, most of which was rented out. This included areas in Birkenhead, Claughton, Higher Bebington, Saughall, Tranmere and Moreton. The monks had a grange farm at Claughton, which they worked themselves. To further swell the coffers, churches at Bidston, Bowden and Backford also gave income to the priory.
King John granted a ‘writ of protection’ to the establishment in 1201, which gave both the monks and their property guaranteed safety, by the king, from any kind of malicious attack. John was the builder of Liverpool Castle and needed both sides of the Mersey as safe anchorage for his ships in his campaigns against the Irish. His granting Liverpool a market charter would have increased the traffic on the monks’ ferry.
John’s son, Henry III, enlisted the support of the priory in his wars against the Welsh. This was in the form of money and horses to draw supply carts for his campaigns. In return, the monks got the right to fell woodland near to the priory and turn it into agricultural land.
Henry’s son, Edward I, visited twice in the 1270s. His second visit was to negotiate with a Scottish delegation over a border dispute. The Scots sent two bishops and a son of Robert the Bruce to the priory to do this. The king would have stayed within the monastery’s buildings, while his royal staff would have camped around it. Sixty-three poor people came to enjoy food and drink at the king’s expense. A Welsh rebellion in 1282 saw the prior being called upon to help with the transport of supplies. As a reward, the priory was allowed to redirect a road so that it no longer travelled straight through the monastery’s precinct, and enclose the whole property with a wall or ditch.
King Edward II granted the right for the priory to build lodgings for travellers, and permission to sell food to them, both a ready source of income for the priory. Edward III granted a Royal Charter to give the priory the right to charge a range of tolls on the ferry. Records from 1357 show that the cheapest toll was for a person on foot. There were additional charges if they were carrying a pack and if it was a market day. There was additional cost if they had a horse and more still if the horse was carrying goods.
A snapshot of the volatility of Medieval life comes through in our knowledge of some of the priors. Two were born outside of marriage and had to receive dispensations before they could be made priors. Prior James of Neston was elected and immediately resigned. Prior Henry de Becheton claimed the right to keep dogs, including greyhounds, within the monastery. Prior Thomas of Tuddesbury was charged for illegally keeping 20 pigs in the woods at Birkenhead. Prior John Wood failed to attend a meeting of the General Chapter due to claims of insanity. Robert de Urmston was accused of stealing a worsted cape and silver gilt broach from a monk named John de Wigan. He was acquitted at his trial in Chester and made prior shortly afterwards.
Perhaps the most dramatic account of redemption is related in the account of the early life of Prior Richard Norman. Aged 14, he was in service to an Augustinian friar in London, but was an unruly boy. On one occasion, the priest attacked him with a knife in a fit of temper. He inflicted a serious wound on Norman, who retaliated by stabbing the priest in the neck, delivering a mortal injury. Norman then went on pilgrimage to Rome to receive absolution from the pope. When he returned, he became a monk at Birkenhead Priory, probably as penance for his crime. He later became a priest there and then the prior and served in that position for fifteen years.
In 1534, the priory was still thriving, with seven monks in residence and novices still being recruited. However, just two years later, the monastery was forced to close as part of Henry VIII’s plan to destroy all the monasteries, starting first with the smaller ones. Prior John Sharpe was given a pension, and he and four of the other monks found work elsewhere as priests.
Ralph Worsley first leased, and then bought, the priory buildings, lands and ferry rights. As his surname suggests, he was originally from Worsley near Salford. A member of the king’s household, he held various jobs including Page of the Wardrobe and Steward of the Chamber, Sergeant of the Crown and Warden of the Lions, Lionesses and Leopards at the Tower of London.
His daughter Alice inherited the property in 1572. She was married to Thomas Powell of Horsley in Denbighshire, who was a Royalist during the Civil War. During the conflict, the monastery was occupied by a Royalist force, presumably because of its strategic position. It was attacked and damaged by Parliamentarians, who managed to wrest it from the grasp of the Royalists during their siege of Liverpool. At the end of the war, Thomas had it confiscated, along with the rest of his properties, but eventually managed to buy it back.
The Powell family retained the priory for many years, and converted part of the buildings into a house. The surrounding ruins would have been a picturesque backdrop to their home. The chapter house survived, being converted into a local chapel for the people of Birkenhead.
In 1713, the Powells sold the house to John Cleveland, a prominent merchant, Liverpool mayor and MP. Three years later, it passed to his daughter Alice. Her family lived in Flintshire, but would visit what they now called ‘Birkenhead Hall’ on occasion. It was demolished in the mid 1800s.
The Growth of Birkenhead
In the early 1800s, the lord of the manor of Birkenhead, Francis Richard Price, took the decision to develop the area. With the introduction of a steam ferry across the Mersey, the population began to boom. In 1821, a new church, St Mary’s, was built in the grounds of the priory, with the backing of Price. As the 1800s progressed, the docks, shipyard and housing encroached all around the site, but the priory remains were largely untouched.
In the 1890s, an archaeological report of the monastery was published and, as interest and concern for the ruins grew, a public appeal was launched. With the help of Birkenhead Corporation, the monastery grounds were bought from the Price estate. Restoration began under the directorship of the antiquarian Edward Cox. Stonemasons from Chester, Haswell & Sons, rebuilt the south wall of the western range and consolidated the refectory walls. Attention was turned to the chapter house in 1913, with the Liverpool architect, Edmund Kirby, renovating it and replacing the roof.
In the 1960s, Cammell Laird bought land south of the priory so that they could construct the Princess Dock. Although remains of the priory’s church were discovered in the excavation, they were unfortunately destroyed in the process.
In 1971, St Mary’s Church was closed. Demolition followed soon after, but a decision was made to leave the tower and west walls in place, and these remain today, greeting the visitor as they enter the monastery grounds. The intention to open the site up more for tourists was underway.
Renovations continued until the 1980s and 1990s. The undercroft was converted into a museum, the church tower had a new staircase put in place and its clock was restored. The room above the chapter house was converted to a chapel, and an exhibition for HMS Conway was installed. In 2014, large scale conservation work was done on all the remains of the monastery, bringing it to its current appearance today.
Visiting Birkenhead Priory Today
Today, the site of the cloister is dominated by the tombstones from St Mary’s church, but these are relatively recent additions from the 1800s. In the time of the monks, there would have been no burials here. The cloister was a square central space, consisting of a garden and a covered walkway around the edge of it, with doorways into connecting buildings. It would have been a place of study for the monks.
The chapter house was where the monks met each day, presided over by the prior. The vaulted roof dates back to the Norman era, and is in the Romanesque style. The windows were added in the 1400s. Its survival in such good condition is because it was used as a chapel after the abolition of the monastery. It was closed when St Mary’s church was built, but reopened in the early 20th century. The stained glass was added in 1920, designed by Sir Ninian Comper, including a picture of Baron Hamon de Massey, the founder. The top floor is also used as a chapel and is a memorial to the three naval training vessels that successively bore the name HMS Conway, which were moored nearby. As well as memorabilia, there is a striking stained glass window inspired by John Masefield’s The Conway Gulls.
The refectory was where the monks ate together. Although the above ground part of this has disappeared completely, the undercroft is remarkably complete. Octagonal columns support the impressive vaulted ceiling. At one end of the room would have been the buttery, where beer and wine were stored. The other end was used for general food storage. The space now contains objects found from excavation of the priory. These include decorative floor tiles, moulded bricks, Cistercian ware pottery from the 1500s and a rare and expensive ‘parrot beak’ jug that was used to pour fine wines. Boars’ tusks, mostly likely from pigs raised at their grange farm, indicate that pork was often on the menu.
Much of the outside standing ruins are the remains of the lodgings for both the prior and his guests. These date from the 1300s and 1400s, and remains of fireplaces, gothic arched doorways and carved faces can be seen.
Begun in 1891, St Mary’s was the parish church for Birkenhead and it was enlarged in 1832. Only the tower and spire remain, along with the west wall. The unusual cast iron windows, installed by architect Thomas Rickman, can be seen. The tower can be climbed today and gives great views out over the shipyard and beyond.
This monastery at Birkenhead is an incredible survivor of Georgian, Victorian and 20th Century industry and settlement that encroached on all sides. Today, the site is a hidden gem in our north-west heritage and deserves our continued support. See below for opening times.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020. This page written 2021
Summer Opening Times:
Saturday and Sunday 10am- 5pm
Wednesday to Friday 1pm- 5pm
There is free parking outside the priory, and a small entrance fee to the site.
See the website here
Just over the Mersey Liverpool’s Lost Castle
Birkenhead Priory: A Guidebook, Peter de Figueiredo (2018) Wirral Museums Service. This excellent book is available from the shop on site.
On site interpretation