The Benedictine priory at Binham is one of the best preserved and impressive monastic ruins in Norfolk. Founded by Peter des Valognes, a nephew of William I, in 1091, according to the English Heritage website: ‘Many of its priors were unscrupulous and the history of the priory is one of almost continuous scandal.’ It therefore seemed a perfect venue for me to visit, given the theme I am pursuing in my work.
The western section of the south side of Binham priory’s nave
Whilst I found little of interest to sketch or paint, the visit proved most worthwhile because wandering around the remains with no one else on the site that cold February afternoon, allowed my imagination to work. The function of some rooms had been marked out – such as the chapter house (a chamber where monks met each morning to discuss the priory’s affairs and to listen to a reading from the Rule of St. Benedict – a strict routine of work, prayer, study and sleep), the parlour (and the chapter house were the only locations where monks could speak), the frater, the warmer, the central cloister, the refectory (where two simple meals were eaten daily) and the bakery.
Seconds after reading about Alexander de Langley, a prior of Wymondham in the 13th century, who went insane and was brought to Binham priory to live in solitary confinement (and was later buried in chains in the monk’s cemetery), a flock of about two hundred pink-footed geese flew over (Fig. 2) – that poor soul must have heard that sound many times in his isolation. That thought added enormously to the visit.
Alexander de Langley’s insanity and the self-centred dealings of many of Binham priory’s priors reflect well in this distortion (Fig. 3).
Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Fig. 6 (detail)
In 1934-38 the priory was excavated and medieval glass found and two panels were made from the glass fragments. Figure 4 is based on patterns known as naturalistic leaf grisaille. Most excavated medieval glass is opaque, so this is a wonderful find. The glass fragments in Figure 4 may be related to Edward I’s visit to Binham in 1285, as royal visits were often associated with the installation of windows. Some of the lighter fragments at the top of the panel in Figure 5 are 15th century. Figure 6 is a detail of Figure 5 showing a wonderful medieval face.
Fig. 7 Fig. 8
The priory was closed with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, but the nave continued to be used as a parish church. Much of the stone was robbed away and, indeed, some of the dressed stone is to be found in houses in the village. But what columns remain stand like giant sentinels (Figs. 7 & 8, basking in remarkable light as the sun set, and Figs. 9-10, earlier in the afternoon)
Fig. 9 Fig. 10