This important Norfolk visitor attraction is one of the largest and best-preserved monastic sites in England dating back to 1090. It was the home of the first Cluniac order of monks to England and the Cluniac love of decoration is everywhere reflected in the extensive ruins.
There is much to see at the priory, including the beautiful west end church gable, priors lodging and substantial remains of many of the buildings round the cloister. The recreated herb garden grows herbs, which the monks would have used for medicinal, culinary and decorative purposes.
Castle Acre Priory is thought to have been founded in 1089 by William de Warenne the son the 1st Earl of Surrey who had founded England’s first Cluniac priory at Lewes in 1077. The order originated from Burgundy. Originally the priory was sited within the walls of Castle Acre Castle, but this proved too small and inconvenient for the monks, hence the priory was relocated to the present site in the castle grounds about one year later.
The church itself was consecrated sometime between 1146 and 1148.
While the Warenne family may have been the main benefactors of the priory, others also gave generously to it, for example Scolland of Bedale, steward of Alan Earl of Richmond, who was in fact buried there. Like other Cluniac houses, Castle Acre Priory was directly subject to the authority of the Abbot of Cluny; for practical reasons, however, the Prior of Lewes was usually instructed to act for the abbot when any problems arose at Castle Acre. However, this obedience owed to a foreign abbot caused difficulties when the Kings of England were at odds with France and/or Burgundy. In the mid 14th century the English Cluniacs settled this difficulty by buying a special legal recognition from the king as ‘native’ religious houses.
The priory was home to some 20 to 30 monks.
The nave of the church is one of the oldest parts of the ruin. Subsequent additions continued to be added until the priory was dissolved in 1537 under Henry VIII, and when the King gave the dissolved priory to the Duke of Norfolk complete with its estates, the remaining monks were turned out.
The estates eventually passed to Sir Edward Coke, whose descendant, the Earl of Leicester now owns the ruins and Castle Acre Castle.