Norton Priory: Wikis


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Norton Priory
Norton Priory.jpg
Foundations of the monastic buildings and the back of the museum
Monastery information
Order Augustinian
Established 1115
Disestablished 1536
Diocese Lichfield
Controlled churches Runcorn, Great Budworth,
St Michael, Chester, Castle Donington, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Kneesall, Burton upon Stather, Pirton (now Pyrton)[1]
Founder William fitz Nigel,
2nd Baron of Halton
Dedicated to St Bertelin, St Mary,
St Christopher
Location Norton, near Runcorn,
Cheshire, England
Coordinates 53°20′32″N 2°40′48″W / 53.3423°N 2.6799°W / 53.3423; -2.6799Coordinates: 53°20′32″N 2°40′48″W / 53.3423°N 2.6799°W / 53.3423; -2.6799
Grid Reference SJ548830
Visible Remains Yes
Public Access Yes

Norton Priory was a priory established as an Augustinian foundation near Runcorn, Cheshire, England in the 12th century. In 1391 it was raised to the status of an abbey. The abbey was closed in 1536, as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. Nine years later the structures, with the manor of Norton, were purchased by Sir Richard Brooke, who built a Tudor house on the site, incorporating part of the abbey building. This was replaced in the 18th century by a Georgian house. The Brooke family left the house in 1921 and it was demolished in 1928. In 1966 the site was given in trust for the use of the general public.

Excavation of the site began in 1971 and the excavation became the largest to be carried out by modern methods on any monastic site in Europe. It revealed the foundations and lower parts of the walls of the monastery buildings and the abbey church. Important finds included: a Norman doorway; a finely carved arcade; a floor of mosaic tiles, the largest floor area of this type to be found in any modern excavation; the remains of the kiln where the tiles were fired; a bell pit used for casting the bell; and a large medieval statue of St Christopher.

In the 1970s, the site was opened to the public. It includes a museum, the archaeological findings and the surrounding garden and woodland. In 1984 the separate walled garden was redesigned and opened to the public. Norton Priory is now a major tourist attraction and the museum organises a programme of events, exhibitions and educational courses.





In 1115 a community of Augustinian canons was founded in the burh of Runcorn by William fitz Nigel, the second baron of Halton and constable of Chester, on the south bank of the River Mersey where it narrows to form Runcorn Gap.[2] This was the only practical crossing point of the Mersey between Warrington and Birkenhead, and it is likely that the canons would care for travellers and pilgrims crossing the river at this point. In addition, it is possible that William wanted to profit from the tolls paid by these travellers.[3] The priory was only the second religious house to be founded in the earldom of Chester, the first being the Benedictine St Werburgh's Abbey at Chester, which had been founded in 1093 by Hugh Lupus, the first Earl of Chester.[4] The priory at Runcorn had a double dedication to St Bertelin and to St Mary.[5] It is thought that the dedication to St Bertelin was taken from the dedication of the Saxon church already existing on the site.[4][5] In 1134 William fitz William, the third baron of Halton, moved the priory to a site in Norton, a village 3 miles (5 km) to the east of Runcorn. The reasons for the move are uncertain. It may have been that William fitz William wanted greater control of the strategic crossing of the Mersey at Runcorn Gap, or it may have been because the canons wanted a more secluded site.[5][6][7] Nothing remains today of the site of the original priory in Runcorn.[8]

The site for the new priory was in "damp, scrubby woodland".[9] There is no evidence that it was agricultural land, or that it contained any earlier buildings. The first priority was to clear and drain the land. There were freshwater springs near the site and these would have provided clean water. They would have also been used to create watercourses and moated enclosures, some of which might have been used for orchards and herb gardens. Sandstone was available at an outcrop nearby for building the priory, sand for mortar could be obtained from the shores of the River Mersey, and boulder clay on the site provided material for floor and roof tiles. Remnants of wood found on the site were oak, sometimes from trees hundreds of years old. It is likely that this came from various sources; some would have come from nearby, but it is also likely that some was gifted from the forests at Delamere and Macclesfield.[10] The church and monastic buildings were constructed in Romanesque style.[11]

The priory had been endowed by William fitz Nigel with properties in Cheshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire. These gifts included the churches of St Mary, Great Budworth and St Michael, Chester. By 1195 the priory owned eight churches, five houses, the tithe of at least eight mills, the rights of common in four townships, and one-tenth of the profits from the Runcorn ferry.[5][12][13] The prior supplied the chaplain to the constableship of Chester and to the baron of Halton.[12]

During the 12th century the main benefactors of the priory were the barons of Halton, but after 1200 their gifts reduced, mainly because they transferred their interests to the Cistercian abbey at Stanlow, which had been founded in 1178 by John fitz Richard, the sixth baron. It is unlikely that any of the barons of Halton were buried in Norton Priory. The only members of the family definitely to be buried there were Richard, brother of Roger, the seventh baron, and Alice, niece of William, Earl Warenne, the 6th Earl of Surrey.[14] As the role played by the barons of Halton declined, so the importance of members of the Dutton family increased. The Duttons had been benefactors since the priory's foundation, and from the 13th century they became the principal benefactors. There were two main branches of the family, one in Dutton and the other in Sutton Weaver. The Dutton family had their own burial chapel in the priory, and burial in the chapel is specified in three wills made by members of the family.[15][16] The Aston family of Aston were also important benefactors.[17][18]

During the later 12th century and early 13th century the priory buildings, including the church, were expanded. It is estimated that the original community would have consisted probably of 12 canons and the prior; this increased to around 26 in the later part of the 12th century, making it one of the largest houses in the Augustinian order.[19] By the end of the century the church had been lengthened, a new and larger chapter house had been built and a large chapel had been added to the east end of the church. In about 1200 the west front of the church was enlarged, a bell tower was built and guest quarters were constructed.[20] It is possible that the chapel at the east end was built to accommodate the "holy cross of Norton", a relic which was reputed to have miraculous healing powers.[21] A serious fire in 1236 destroyed the timber-built kitchen and damaged the west range and the roof of the church. The kitchen was rebuilt in stone and the other damage was rapidly repaired.[5][20][22]


During the first 60 years of the 14th century the priory suffered from financial mismanagement and from disputes with the Dutton family. In addition, a severe flood in 1331 reduced the income from the priory's lands.[5][23] The direct effects of the Black Death are not known, but during the 1350s financial problems continued. These were improved to an extent with the selling of the advowson of the church at Ratcliffe-on-Soar.[24] Matters further improved from 1366 with the appointment of Richard Wyche as prior. He was active both in the Augustinian chapter and elsewhere, and in 1391 was involved in raising the priory's status to that of a mitred abbey meaning that the abbot was given permission to use pontifical insignia, including the mitre, ring and pontifical staff, and to give the solemn benediction provided a bishop was not present.[25] It was rare for an Augustinian house to be elevated to this status. Out of about 200 Augustinian houses in England and Wales, 28 were abbeys and only seven of these became mitred. The only other mitred abbey in Cheshire was that of St Werburgh in Chester.[26] In 1379 and in 1381 there were 15 canons at Norton and in 1401 there were 16, making it the largest Augustinian community in the northwest of England. Although the influence of the barons of Halton had decreased by this time, John of Gaunt, the 14th baron, agreed to become patron of the newly formed abbey. By this time the church was 287 feet (87 m) long, making it the second longest Augustinian church in northwest England, exceeded in length only by the church at Carlisle which was 328 feet (100 m) long.[27] Towards the end of the 14th century the abbey acquired a giant statue of St Christopher.[28] St Christopher was associated with the priory because of its proximity to the River Mersey and the dangers associated with crossing the river.[5][29] Three wills from members of the Dutton family from this period survive; they are dated 1392, 1442 and 1527, and in each will money was bequeathed to the foundation.[30]

Following the death of Richard Wyche in 1400 the fortunes of the abbey declined. He was succeeded by his prior, John Shrewsbury, who "does not seem to have done more than keep the house in order".[11] Frequent floods had reduced its income, and in 1429 the church and other abbey buildings were described as being "ruinous".[31] Problems continued through the remainder of the 15th century, leading to the selling of more advowsons. By 1496 the number of canons had reduced to nine and to seven in 1524. In 1522 there were reports of disputes between the abbot and the prior. The abbot was accused of "wasting the house's resources, nepotism, relations with women" and other matters, while the prior admitted to "fornication and lapses in the observation of the Rule"; the abbot was threatened with a knife and the prior "left for Halton".[11] The physical state of the buildings continued to deteriorate.[5][32]

Although the records of the priory and abbey have not survived, the excavations of the 1970s and since, and the study of documents, have produced evidence of how the monastic lands were managed. The principal source of income came from farming. This income was required not only for the building and upkeep of the property, but also for feeding the canons, their guests, and visiting pilgrims. The priory also had an obligation from its foundation to house travellers fording the Mersey. It has been estimated that nearly half of the demesne lands were used for arable farming. The grain grown on priory lands was ground by a local windmill and by a watermill outside the priory lands. Excavations revealed part of a stone handmill in the area used as the monastic kitchen. In addition to orchards and herb gardens in the moated enclosures, it is likely that beehives were maintained for the production of honey. There is evidence from bone fragments that cattle, sheep, pigs, geese and chickens were reared and consumed, but few bone fragments from deer, rabbits or hares have been discovered. Horseflesh was not eaten. Although few fish bones have been discovered, it is known from documentary evidence that the canons owned a number of local fisheries. The fuel used consisted of wood and charcoal, and turf from marshes over which the priory had rights of turbary.[33]

The events in 1536 surrounding the fate of the abbey at the dissolution of the monasteries are complicated, and included a dispute between Sir Piers Dutton, Sheriff of Cheshire and Sir William Brereton, the deputy-chamberlain of Chester. Initially the abbey was undervalued so that it could classified as a minor monastery and dissolved in the first phase of the dissolution. In addition a campaign of vilification was directed at the canons, asserting that they were guilty of "debauched conduct".[34] Then Dutton falsely accused the abbot and Brereton of issuing counterfeit coins. This charge was dismissed mainly because one of Dutton's witnesses was considered to be "unconvincing".[34] Nevertheless it was decided that the abbey should be dissolved and commissioners arrived at the abbey in early October 1536. There was considerable opposition and the commissioners were menaced by around 300 local people. The commissioners barricaded themselves in a tower and managed to send a letter to Dutton who arrived with a force of men in the middle of the night. Most of the rebels fled but Dutton arrested the abbot and four of the canons, who were sent to Halton Castle and then to prison in Chester. Dutton sent a report of the events to Henry VIII, who replied in letters to Dutton and Brereton that if the abbot and canons had behaved as Dutton reported, they should be executed as traitors. However following delaying tactics, including an intercession to Thomas Cromwell by Brereton, the abbot and canons were discharged and awarded pensions.[5][35][36][37] The abbey was made inhospitable, the lead from the roof, the bell metal, and other valuable materials were confiscated for the king, and the building lay empty for nine years.[38] The estate came into the ownership of the Crown, and it was managed by Brereton.[39] It is likely that the church was demolished at an early stage, but it is not known when, and to what degree, the monastic buildings were destroyed.[40]

Country house

Engraving by the Buck brothers of the Tudor house from the west dated 1727

In 1545 the abbey and the manor of Norton were sold to Sir Richard Brooke for a little over £1,512 (£460,000 as of 2010).[41] By this time most of the monastic buildings had been demolished. Brooke built a house in Tudor style on the site of the former abbot's lodgings in the western range which was still standing.[5][38] The house then became known as Norton Hall.[42] It is not certain how much of the rest of the monastic buildings remained when it was bought by the Brookes. Excavations suggest that the cloisters were still present. A sketch plan drawn by Randle Holme in the 17th century shows that the gatehouse was still in existence at that time, although almost all of the church had been demolished. The engraving by the Buck brothers dated 1727 shows that little changed during the next 100 years.[43]

During the Civil War the house was attacked by a force of Royalists. The Brookes were the first family in north Cheshire to declare allegiance to the Parliamentary side. Halton Castle was a short distance away, and was held by Earl Rivers for the Royalists. In February 1643 a large force from the castle armed with cannon attacked the house, which was defended by only 80 men. Brooke successfully defended the house, with only one man wounded, while the Royalists lost 16 men including their cannonier. They burnt two barns and plundered Brooke's tenants, but then "returned home with shame and the hatred of the country".[44][45]

At some time between 1727 and 1757 the Tudor house was demolished and replaced by a new house in Georgian style.[46] The house had an L-plan, the main wing facing west standing on the footprint of the Tudor house, with a south wing at right-angles to it. The ground floor of the west wing incorporated the former undercroft of the west range, and contained the kitchens and areas for the storage of wines and beers. The first floor was the piano nobile, containing the main reception rooms. The west front was symmetrical, in three storeys, with a double flight of stairs leading up to the main entrance.[47] Clearance of the other monastic buildings had started but the moated enclosures were still in existence at that time. However a drawing dated 1770 shows that by then the other monastic buildings and moats had been cleared away and the former fishponds were being used for pleasure boating.[46] Between 1757 and the early 1770s modifications were made to the house, the main one being the addition of a north wing.[48] According to Pevsner and Hubbard, the architect responsible for this was James Wyatt.[49] Also between 1757 and 1770 the Brooke family built a walled garden at a distance from the house to provide fruit, vegetables and flowers.[50] The family also developed the woodland surrounding the house, creating pathways, a stream-glade and a rock garden.[51] Brick-built wine bins were added to the undercroft, developing it into a wine cellar, and barrel vaulting was added to the outer parlour, obscuring its arcade.[52]

About this time Sir Richard Brooke was involved in a campaign to prevent the Bridgewater Canal from being built across his estate. The Bridgewater Canal Extension Act had been passed in 1762, making allowances for limited disturbance to the estate. However Sir Richard did not see the necessity for the canal. He held out against it until the canal was opened in 1773 from Manchester to Runcorn, except for 1 mile (2 km) across his estate. This meant that goods had to be unloaded and their contents carted around the estate. Eventually Sir Richard capitulated and the canal was completed throughout its length in March 1776.[53]

By 1853 a service range had been added to the south wing of the house. In 1868 the external flight of stairs was removed and a new porch entrance was added to the west front.[54] The entrance featured a Norman doorway that had been moved from elsewhere in the monastery, probably from the entrance from the west cloister walk into the nave of the church.[55] An exact replica of this doorway was built and placed to the north of the Norman doorway, making a double entrance. The whole of the undercroft was radically restored, giving it a Gothic theme, adding stained glass windows and a medieval-style fireplace. The ground to the south of the house was levelled and formal gardens were established there.[54][56]

During the 19th century the estate was again affected by transport projects. In 1804 the Runcorn to Latchford Canal was opened, replacing the Mersey and Irwell Navigation; this cut off the northern part of the estate, making it only accessible by a bridge. The Grand Junction Railway was built across the estate in 1837, followed by the Warrington and Chester Railway, which opened in 1850; both of these lines affected the southeast part of the estate. Then in 1894 the Runcorn to Latchford Canal was replaced by the Manchester Ship Canal, and the northern part of the estate could only be accessed by a swing bridge.[57] The Brooke family left the house in 1921 and it was demolished in 1928. Rubble from the house was used in the foundations of a new chemical works. During the demolition, the undercroft was retained and roofed with a cap of concrete. In 1966 the current Sir Richard Brooke gave Norton Priory in trust for the benefit of the public.[58]

In 1971 J. Patrick Greene was given a contract to carry out a six-month excavation for Runcorn Development Corporation as part of a plan to develop a park in the centre of Runcorn New Town. The site consisted of a 500-acre (202 ha) area of fields and woods to the north of the Bridgewater Canal. Greene's initial findings led to him being employed for a further 12 years to supervise a major excavation of the site. The buildings found included a Norman doorway with Victorian additions and three medieval rooms. More specialists were employed and local volunteers were recruited. Teams of supervised prisoners were used to perform some of the heavier work. The excavation became the largest in area to be carried out by modern methods on any monastic site in Europe.[59] It was decided to create a museum on the site, and in 1975 Norton Priory Museum Trust was established.[60]

Findings from excavations

Priory 1134–1236

The excavations have revealed information about the original priory buildings and grounds, and how they were subsequently modified.[61] It was likely that the move from Runcorn to Norton took a period of time. The first priorities were to establish a source of fresh water for drinking and a means of sanitation, together with the drainage of a relatively wet site. The excavations have revealed a series of drainage ditches to deal with these needs.[62] Evidence of the earliest temporary timber buildings in which the canons were originally housed was found in the form of 12th-century post pits. Norton Priory is one of very few monastic sites to have produced evidence of temporary quarters.[63] The remains of at least seven temporary buildings have been found. The largest of these, having more substantial foundations than the others, was probably the timber framed church. Another was most likely the gatehouse, and the rest provided accommodation for the canons and senior members of the secular craftsmen.[64]

Norman doorway in the undercroft

The earliest masonry building was the church, which was constructed on shallow foundations of sandstone rubble and pebbles on boulder clay. The walls were built in local red sandstone with ashlar faces and a rubble and mortar core.[65] The ground plan of the original church was cruciform, and consisted of a nave without aisles, a choir at the crossing with a tower above it, a square-ended chancel, and north and south transepts, each with an eastern chapel. The total length of the church was 148 feet (45.1 m) and the total length across the transepts was 74 feet (22.6 m), giving a ratio of 2:1. The walls of the church were 5 feet (1.5 m) wide at the base, and the crossing tower was supported on four piers.[66][67] The other early buildings surrounded a cloister to the south of the church. The east range incorporated the chapter house and also contained the sacristy, the canons' dormitory and the reredorter. The upper storey of the west range provided living accommodation for the prior and an area where secular visitors could be received. In the lower storey was the undercroft where food and fuel were stored. The south range contained the refectory. At a distance from the south range stood the kitchen.[68][69] Evidence of a bell foundry dating from this period was found 55 yards (50 m) to the north of the church.[70][71] It is likely that this was used for casting a tenor bell.[72] A few moulded stones from this early period were found, including nine blocks that probably formed part of a corbel table and two beak-head voussoirs. This type of voussoir is rare in Cheshire, and has been found in only one other church in the county.[73]

Following the completion of the first phase of building, there was considerable expansion in the last two decades of the 12th century and the first two or three decades of the 13th century. The south and west ranges were demolished and rebuilt, enlarging the size of the cloister. The size of the cloister was increased from about 36 feet (11 m) by 510 feet (155 m) to about 56 feet (17 m) by 52 feet (16 m).[74] This meant that a door in the south wall of the church had to be blocked off and a new, highly decorated doorway was built at the northeast corner of the cloister; this doorway has survived.[75] The other standing remains of the priory also date from this period of its development. These consist of the lower storey of the west range and comprise the cellarer's undercroft and a passage to its north known as the outer parlour. The outer parlour was the entrance to the priory from the outside world, and is highly decorated in order to display the priory's power and wealth to its visitors. The undercroft, used for storage, is divided into two chambers, and its decoration is much plainer. The upper floor has been lost. It is thought that this contained the prior's living quarters and, possibly, a chapel over the outer parlour.[76] A new and larger reredorter was built at the end of the east range, and it is possible that work may have started on a new chapter house.[77] During this period a system of stone drains was constructed to replace the previous open ditches.[78] The west wall of the church was demolished and replaced by one a more massive structure, 10 feet (3 m) thick at the base. The east wall was also demolished and the chancel was extended, forming an additional area measuring approximately 27 feet (8 m) by 23 feet (7 m).[79]

Priory and abbey 1236–1536

The excavation revealed evidence of the fire of 1236, including ash, charcoal, burnt planks and a burnt wooden bowl. It is likely that the fire started in the timber-built kitchens at the junction of the west and south ranges, and then spread to the monastic buildings and church. Most of the wood in the buildings, including the furnishings and roofs, would have been destroyed, although the masonry walls remained largely intact. This led to the need for major repairs.[80] It gave an opportunity for the extension of the church, and its refurbishment in a manner even grander than previously. It was extended by the addition of new chapels to both of the transepts.[81] The cloister had been badly damaged in the fire and its arcade was rebuilt on the previous foundations.[82] The new arcade was of "very high quality and finely wrought construction".[83] The kitchens were rebuilt, probably again in timber.[84] Excavations have found evidence of a second bell foundry in the northwest of the priory grounds. The date of this is uncertain but Greene suggested that it was built to replace the original bell, damaged in the fire.[85] Later in the 13th century another chapel was added to the north transept.[86] Accommodation for guests was constructed to the southwest of the monastic buildings.[87]

Later the chapel in the south transept was replaced by a grander two-chambered chapel. This balanced the enlarged chapels in the north transept, restoring the church's cruciform plan. Around this time the east end of the church was further extended when a reliquary chapel was added measuring about 42 feet (13 m) by 24 feet (7 m).[88] A guest hall was built to the west of the previously-built guest quarters.[89] After the status of the foundation was elevated from a priory to an abbey, a tower house was added to the west range. Although this is shown on contemporary illustrations, it has left little in the way of archaeological remains.[90] The church was extended by the addition of a north aisle.[91] There is little evidence of other major alterations before the Dissolution, although it is likely that the cloister was rebuilt, and alterations were made to the east range.[92]

Country house

There is little archaeological evidence relating to the period immediately following the Dissolution, or about the Tudor house built on part of the site.[93] A sawpit was found in the outer courtyard, which might date from the early period of the Brooke's house, or may have been constructed during the later years of the abbey.[42][94] The evidence suggests that the kitchens to the south of the Tudor house, and their drainage systems, continued to be used by the Brookes, and that, possibly, they were rebuilt by them.[95] It also suggests that the areas previously occupied by the cloisters and the guest quarters were used as middens.[96] Brown and Howard-Davis point out that the primary focus of the excavations of the 1970s and 80s concentrated on the medieval priory and abbey, and that findings relating to the later house on the site were of less interest to the excavators.[97] Few archaeological findings remain from the Georgian house, apart from a fragment of a wall from the south front,[98] and the foundations of the north wing.[99] The much-altered medieval undercroft still stands, with its Norman doorway and Victorian replica, barrel vaulting, wine bins, and, in the former outer parlour, the blind arcading.[100]


Coffins found at Norton Priory

The excavations revealed information about the burials carried out within the church and the monastic buildings, and in the surrounding grounds. They are considered to be "either those of Augustinian canons, privileged members of their lay household, or of important members of the Dutton family".[101] Most burials were in stone coffins, or in wooden coffins with stone lids. They were carried out from the late 12th century up to the time of the Dissolution.[101] The site of the burial depended on the status of the individual, clerical or lay, and within these categories, their degree of importance. Priors, abbots and high ranking canons, were buried within the church; those towards the east end of the church being the most important. Other canons were buried in a graveyard outside the church, in an area on the south and east of the chancel. Members of the laity were buried either in the church, towards the west end of the nave or in the north aisle, or outside the church around its west end. It is possible that there was a lay cemetery to the north and west of the church.[102] The addition of the chapels to the north transept, and their expansion, was carried out for the Dutton family,[103] making it their "burial chapel",[104] or "family mausoleum",[105] and the highest concentration of burials was found in this part of the church.[106] It is thought that the north aisle, built after the elevation of the priory to an abbey, was added to provide a burial place for members of the laity.[101]

The excavations revealed 49 stone coffins, 30 coffin lids, and five headstones. Of the coffin lids, 12 were carved in high relief, while the other 18 had simpler incised patterns. The lids in high relief include designs of flowers or foliage. Two contain inscriptions in Norman-French, identifying the deceased. One lid has the image of an oak tree issuing from a human head in the style of a green man. Another depicts a cross, a dragon and a female effigy. Motifs on other lids include shields and a sword. The designs on the simpler incised lids are mainly crosses in various decorated forms. The headstones contain crosses.[107] Most of the coffins were sunk into the ground, with the lid at the level of the floor, although a few were found within the walls. There were only three stone coffins for children. These lay in a group, together with a coffin containing a male skeleton, in the vestibule leading to the enlarged chapter house. The most prestigious type of coffin was tapered towards the feet, with the head end carved externally to a hemi-hexagonal shape. Another sign of higher status was the provision of an internal "pillow" for the head.[108]

Carved coffin lids

A total of 144 graves was excavated; they contained 130 articulated skeletons in a suitable condition for examination.[109] Of these, 36 were well-preserved, 48 were in a fair condition and 46 were poorly preserved.[110] Males out-numbered females by a ratio of three to one, an expected ratio in a monastic site. Most of the males had survived into middle age (36–45 years) to old age (46 years or older), while equal numbers of females died before and after the age of about 45 years. One female death was presumably due to a complication of pregnancy as she had been carrying a 34-week foetus.[111] The average height of the adult males was 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m) and that of the adult females was 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m).[112]

The bones show a variety of diseases and degenerative processes. Six skeletons showed evidence of Paget's disease of bone (osteitis deformans). This affected a number of bones in the body; in each case the pelvic bones showed signs of the disease, and other bones affected were the femur (in four cases), clavicle, scapula (three cases each) and the cranium, spine, humerus, ribs and tibia (each with two cases).[113] The most severe case was that of a body been buried in the nave in a stone coffin with a lid carved with two shields, indicating that he was a knight.[114] One skeleton showed signs of leprosy affecting bones in the face, hands and feet.[115] No definite cases of tuberculosis directly affecting bones were found but in two individuals there were changes in the ribs consistent with the individuals having suffered from tuberculosis of the lungs.[116] Leprosy and tuberculosis are infections causing inflammation of the bones (osteitis). Other skeletons showed evidence of bony infection due, either to infections that could not be definitely diagnosed, or secondary to infections in tissues or organs adjacent to the bones. A total of 31 cases fell into this category, 28 of which affected the lower limbs.[117] The only major congenital abnormality found consisted of bony changes resulting from a possible case of Down's syndrome. Congenital abnormalities of the spine were found in 19 skeletons. Of these, ten were cases of spina bifida occulta. Other spinal abnormalities included fused vertebrae, spondylolysis and transitional vertebrae.[118] Definite evidence of fractured bones was found in ten skeletons, and evidence of possible fractures was found in three other cases. The bones affected were mainly the long bones of the limbs and bones of the hands and feet.[119] One cranium contained a large circular lesion which may have been the consequence of trepanning.[120] Osteoarthritis was a common disease then, as it is now, and the condition was found in a significant number of the skeletons.[121] Other diseases specific to bone were diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, affecting two individuals, and three possible cases of spondyloarthropathy.[122] Three skeletons showed possible evidence of rickets, two had changes of osteoporosis, and three crania had features of hyperostosis frontalis interna, a metabolic condition affecting post-menopausal women.[123] Osteomata (benign tumours of bone) were found in three cases.[124]

Examination of the jaws and teeth gave information about the dental health of those buried in the priory. The degree of wear of teeth was greater than it is at present, while the incidence of dental caries was much lower than it is now, as was the incidence of periodontal disease. A consequence of the wear of the teeth was "compensatory eruption" of the teeth in order to keep contact with the opposing teeth. It was concluded that the people buried in the priory had few problems with their teeth or jaws. Loss of teeth was due to wear of the teeth, rather than from caries or periodontal disease.[125]

Artifacts from the buildings

A large number of tiles and tile fragments that had lined the floor of the church and some of the monastic buildings were found in the excavations. These have been extensively examined and classified.[126] The tiles found formed a pavement forming the floor of the choir of the church and the transepts. It is likely that they also covered the floor of the chancel, although because this was at a higher level and the tiles were likely to have been removed during gardening operations. A dump of tiles to the south of the site of the chapter house suggests that this was also tiled.[127] In the choir a second tile floor had been laid on top of the original floor where it had become worn.[128] The tiles on the original floor were of varying shapes, forming a mosaic.[127] The tiles were all glazed and coloured, the main colours being black, green and yellow. Many of them had been decorated by impressing a wooden stamp into the moist clay before it was fired; these are known as line-impressed tiles.[129] The excavations revealed an area of tiles of about 80 square metres, that is "the largest area of a floor of this type to be found in any modern excavation".[127] The line-impressed designs included masks of lions or other animals, rosettes, and trefoils.[130] Other tiles or tile fragments showed portions of trees, foliage, birds and inscriptions.[131] In the chapels of the north transept, the burial place of the Dutton family, were tiles depicting mail, thought to be part of a military effigy, and tiles bearing fragments of heraldic designs.[132] The tiles from the upper, later, pavement were all square, and again were line-inscribed with patterns forming parts of larger designs.[133] A related discovery at the excavation was the kiln in which most of the tiles on the site were fired.[134] The tiles discovered at Norton "are the largest, and most varied, excavated collection of medieval tiles in the North West" and "the greatest variety of individual mosaic shapes found anywhere in Britain".[135]

The excavations revealed stones or fragments of carved stone dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries.[136] The earliest are in Romanesque style and include two voussoirs decorated with beakheads (grotesque animal heads with long pointed bird-like beaks). Other stones dating from the 12th century are in Gothic style; they include a capital decorated with leaves and a portion of the tracery from a rose window.[137] Many of the stones from the 13th century were originally part of the cloister arcade, and had been re-used to form the core of a later cloister arcade. They include stones sculpted with depictions of humans and animals. The best-preserved of these are the heads of two canons, each wearing a cowl with the tonsure visible, the head of a woman with shoulder-length hair, parts of a seated figure holding an open book, and a creature that might represent a serpent or an otter.[138] There are numerous fragments dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. These include portions of string courses, tracery, corbels, window jambs, and arch heads. At least three of the corbels were carved in the form of human heads.[139] Over 1,500 fragments of painted medieval glass were found, most of it in a poor condition. These show that the glazing scheme used in the priory was mainly in grisaille (monochrome) style.[140] Almost 1,300 fragments of glass from later periods,[141] and nearly 1,150 sherds of ceramic roof tiles were also found.[142]

Artifacts from daily life

Some 500 fragments of pottery were found dating from the medieval period. Most of these were parts of jars, jugs or pipkins and were found in the area of the kitchen range. A few fragments thought to have come from urinals were found in the area of the reredorter. The source of most of the pottery is not known, although during the medieval period pottery normally did not travel far, so it was concluded that it was produced locally. However 13 sherds of Stamford Ware, fragments of two jugs from North France, and two small pieces of Saintonge pottery were identified. Although metal vessels would have been used by the canons, none were found and only a few wooden bowls were recovered.[143] Much more pottery was found dating from the post-medieval period and later. A wide range of pottery types was present, but the range and types of pottery were not unusual when compared with findings from other English country houses of this period. Most of it had been manufactured in England, especially in Staffordshire. Fragments of pottery from abroad included pieces from a Westerwald mug, a jug from Cologne and items of Chinese porcelain.[144]

The excavations produced over 4,000 sherds of glass, dating from the 12th to the 20th centuries, in addition to the stained glass from the church. Only 16 items were found from the period before the Dissolution, the greatest number coming from the post-medieval period and later. Much of the glass dating from the late 16th and the 17th centuries is thought to have been made at the glasshouses at Bickerstaffe and Haughton Green (both in the historical county of Lancashire), or by Huguenot glassmakers working elsewhere in the country. These include fragments from beakers, jugs, bowls, bottles and phials. A few items of sherds from glass objects imported from Northern Europe were also found. By the 18th century the manufacture of lead-crystal glass had been established in a number of local towns and cities and examples of this were found at Norton from drinking glasses and other tableware. Also dating from this period were fragments from "English bottles", made from dark green or dark amber coloured glass; almost half of the glass finds at Norton were from this source. Glass from the 19th and 20th centuries included luxury and utilitarian items, the latter being the most frequently found. These included pressed glass drinking vessels, egg soda bottles, Codd bottles and medicine bottles.[145]

A total of 1,170 fragments from clay tobacco pipes were found in the excavations. These date from about 1580 to the early 20th century, the largest group dating from between 1640 and 1680.[146] Six medieval coins were recovered, the earliest dated being a silver penny of John from the early 13th century. Coins from later periods were a silver threepence from the reign of Elizabeth I and a silver penny from Charles I. Only low-denomination coins were found from the 18th century and later; these included a 10 pfennig piece from Germany dated 1901.[147]

The rest of the artifacts are classified according to the materials from which they are made. Two silver objects were recovered, both of which were spoons. The hallmark for one gave the date 1846; the other was illegible.[148] A total of 331 fragments of copper alloy were found, some of which were extremely small making identification and dating impossible. Medieval objects associated with personal adornment and dress included brooches, buckles, strap ends, belt studs, dress pins, and buttons. Also found from this period was a small simple chape (scabbard tip), hinges, padlocks, and part of a skimmer that had been used in the kitchen. Copper alloy items from later periods included more strap ends and buttons, a powder compact, a needle, parts of teaspoons, part of a rumbler bell, and furniture knobs and handles.[149] Artifacts made from iron were represented by 402 fragments, most of which were nails. Many of the fragments were badly corroded and most of them were very small. From the medieval period there were again items of personal adornment and dress. Other identifiable items from this period included keys, two possible rowel spurs (spurs with revolving pointed wheels), and about 12 horseshoes. From later periods the iron fragments were mainly from tools, such as knives and chisels, and more horseshoes.[150]

Nearly 2,000 fragments of lead were found, 940 of which were droplets of melted metal, some of these being a consequence of the fire in 1236. One of the earliest artifacts was a papal bulla dating from the rule of Pope Clement III (1187–91). Two other possible seals were discovered. A total of 15 lead discs were recovered, some of which were inscribed with crosses. Two of these were found in graves, but the purpose of the discs has not been reliably explained. The other lead artifacts from this period were associated with the structure of the buildings and include fragments of kame, (the lead used in leaded windows), ventilator grills, and water pipes. Items from later periods include a buckle, more kame, and a counterbalance from a sash window.[151] Leather fragments totalled 288, almost all of which came from shoes. Due to the condition of the leather it was not possible to date many of the samples, but they were thought to span a period of several hundred years. One almost complete shoe was found, a child's shoe dating from the late 16th or the 17th century.[152] In all, 90 pieces of worked wood were discovered. These included parts of a double-sided comb, bowls and dishes, a knife handle, and portions of coffins. In addition there were 30 items of worked bone and ivory. These included a an almost complete parchment pricker, part of a comb, buttons, one arm of a glove stretcher, brush handles and heads, and handles from domestic utensils.[153] Fragments of stone (other than from the buildings) amounted to a total of 64. Of these, one was a small gemstone, a cabochon (polished) sardonyx. Other items included 24 parts of whetstones and fragments of quernstones.[154]

Norton Priory today

Norton Priory is considered to be "a monastic site of international importance" and is "the most extensively excavated monastic site in Britain, if not Western Europe".[155] It is open to the public and is run by a charitable trust, the Norton Priory Museum Trust. The Trust was founded in 1975 and the museum was opened in 1982. The Trust owns and maintains many of the artifacts found during the excavations. It has also created an electronic database forming an acquisitions register of all the artifacts. In addition it holds records relating to the the excavations, including site notebooks and photographs.[156] The area open to the public consists of a museum, the standing archaeological remains, an area of garden and woodland, and the walled garden of the former house.


The museum contains information relating to the history of the site and some of the artifacts discovered during the excavations. These include a model of the church and the monastic buildings as they are thought to have appeared in their final form, carved coffin lids, mosaic tiles, domestic items such as buttons. In a coffin lies one of the skeletons showing signs of Paget's disease of bone.[157] Standing in the museum is a reconstruction of the cloister arcade as it was constructed following the fire of 1236. It consists of moulded pointed arches with springer blocks, voussoirs and apex stones. These are supported on triple shafts with foliate capitals and moulded bases. Above the capitals at the bases of the arches are sculptures, including depictions of human and animal heads. The human heads consist of two canons with hoods and protruding tonsures, other males, and females with shoulder-length hair. In one spandrel is a seated figure with an outstretched arm holding a book. Other carvings depict such subjects as fabulous beasts, and an otter or a snake.[158]

In a separate purpose-built gallery stands the medieval sandstone statue of St Christopher, a major item in the museum. This has been dated to about 1390 and was once painted in bright colours.[159] It is 3.37 metres (11.1 ft) high[160] and is the largest medieval stone figure in Britain.[161] The gallery also contains a three-dimensional representation of the statue as it is believed it would have originally appeared, and associated with this is an interactive display using haptic technology.[162]

Archaeological remains

The archaeological remains are recognised as a Grade I listed building and a scheduled ancient monument. They are considered to be the most important monastic remains in Cheshire.[163] They consist of the former undercroft and the foundations of the church and monastic building that were exposed during the excavations. The undercroft stands outside the museum and is a single-storey structure in seven pairs of bays divided into two compartments, one of four and the other of three bays. It is entered through the portico added to the west front of the country house in 1886 by way of a pair of arched doorways in Norman style. The doorway to the right (south) is original, dating from the late 12th century, while the other doorway is a replica dated 1886.[164] The older doorway has been described as "the finest decorated Norman doorway in Cheshire".[165] It is in good condition with little evidence of erosion and Greene considers that this is because it has always been protected from the weather.[55] The portico leads into the four-bay compartment. This has a tiled floor and contains a medieval-style fireplace.[166] The roof is ribbed vaulted.[167] On the east wall is a two-arched doorway leading to the former cloisters. To the north another archway leads to the three-bay compartment.[164] This also has a tile floor and contains brick wine bins added in the 1780s.[166] The roof of this compartment has groined vaults.[167] The undercroft also contains a bell mould, reconstructed from the fragments of the original mould found in the excavations.[166]

At the northern end of the undercroft is a passage with stone benches on each side and blind arcades above them. The arcades each consist of two groups of four round-headed arches with capitals, free-standing columns and bases which are set on the benches. The capitals and mouldings of the arches are decorated with a variety of carvings, the capitals being predominantly late Romanesque in style and the arches early Gothic.[168] The carvings include human heads, stiff-leaf foliage and animals.[169]


Garden loggia in the grounds

The grounds surrounding the house cover an area of 38 acres (15 ha),[170] which have been largely restored to include the 18th-century pathways, the stream-glade and the nineteenth-century rock garden.[51] The foundations exposed in the excavations show the plan of the former church and monastic buildings.[171] In the grounds is a garden loggia that was possibly designed by James Wyatt. It is built in yellow sandstone with some brickwork. At its front are two Doric columns and two antae. Above these is a cornice with a fluted frieze. The side walls are of stone and the back wall is internally of stone and externally of brickwork. It is a Grade II listed building.[172] Also in the grounds are a number of modern sculptures and a sculpture tail has been designed in conjunction with these.[173] In the 1970s the fragments of the bell mould found in the bell pit were re-assembled and used to create a replica of the bell, which was cast in Widnes and now stands in a frame in the grounds. It was opened at a ceremony performed by Sir Bernard Lovell in 1977.[174] A herb garden was developed as part of the BBC's Hidden garden programme. This seeks to re-create a herb garden as it would have been during the medieval period, and its plan is based on herb gardens in other monastic sites. The plants grown were those reputed to be of value in treating the diseases revealed in the excavated skeletons.[175]

Walled gardens

Ice House

The walled garden, which covers 3.5 acres (1 ha), was restored in the 1980s. It includes an orchard, a fruit garden, a vegetable garden, ornamental borders and a rose walk. It also contains the national collection of tree quince (Cydonia oblonga), with 20 different varieties.[50][176] Close to the walled garden is an ice house. This is constructed in brick covered with a mound of earth, and probably dates from the 18th century. Stone walls surround its entrance, from where a tunnel leads to a circular domed chamber. It is Grade II listed building.[177]

Current activities

The museum is a visitor attraction, and it also runs educational and outreach programmes aimed towards the community. It arranges a series of events for the general public throughout the year,[178] and organises temporary exhibitions in its gallery.[179] Its educational programme is aimed at all ages; this includes workshops for the general public, and courses focusing on the formal and informal aspects of children's education.[180] The outreach programme is aimed towards both individuals and groups in the community.[181] Since its opening, the museum has won awards for its work in a number of different categories, including tourism, education, outreach and gardening.[182] In 2004 the museum's Positive Partnerships project, in which people with learning disabilities worked alongside museum staff, was a finalist in the Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries.[183]

See also



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  • Brown, Fraser; Howard-Davis, Christine (2008), Norton Priory: Monastery to Museum. Excavations 1970–87, Lancaster: Oxford Archaeology North, ISBN 987-0-904220-52-0 
  • Greene, J. Patrick (1989), Norton Priory: The archaeology of a medieval religious house, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-33054-8. 
  • Nickson, Charles (1887), History of Runcorn, London and Warrington: Mackie & Co 
  • Ormerod, George; Thomas Helsby (Ed.) (1882), The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester (2nd ed.), London: George Routledge and Sons 
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus; Edward Hubbard (2003) [1971]. The Buildings of England: Cheshire. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0 300 09588 0. 
  • Starkey, H. F. (1990), Old Runcorn, Halton: Halton Borough Council 

External links


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