Norton Priory is the most excavated monastic site in Europe. Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, its brand new £4.5m museum tells its 900 year story, displaying hundreds of medieval and later period objects discovered during the extensive archaeological digs.
On Sunday, I visited the new museum at Norton Priory. The transformation from the previous museum, where I did a book signing of The de Lacy Inheritance, is delightful. Everything is now under one roof with a spacious central atrium where you can see the St Christopher statue. There are many more artefacts on display in the new galleries and it’s all updated with interactive touch screens, more information and new signage outside in the ruins to help interpret the site.
I had never heard of Norton Priory until I began my research into the de Lacy family and my original visit was to see the gravesite of Richard de Cestria (Richard FitzEustace in my novel). The Historia Lacieorum records that he was buried in the Chapter House: ‘Iste eciam Rogerus habuit quendam fratrem, Ricardum nomine, cui dedit villam de More; et hic postmodum fuit leprosus, et sepultus est in capitulo canonicorum de Northton.’
My first visit revealed a stone coffin at that site where a skeleton had been exhumed that showed signs of leprosy. It seemed that these remains were those of Richard, who was stored in a box in the archive apart from some finger bones that were on display. But history is rarely that simple, new information often comes to light and the latest work has thrown doubt on the identification. I chatted with Tom Hughes, who was taking guided tours around the site, and he told me that the finger bones that had been identified as showing signs of leprosy did not actually belong to the exhumed skeleton but were from a different female burial. He checked the archaeological records for me and it seems the Chapter House burial dates from the 14th century when the Chapter House was extended. So, probably it isn’t Richard after all. He may be there somewhere, but identification of his remains seems improbable at the moment.
Another burial at Norton that I researched was that of Alice, the first wife of John de Lacy. Again this is recorded in the Historia Lacieorum: “cui successit Johannes de Lacy (primus comes Lin. colniae) filius ejus et hacres, et duxit in uxorem Aliciam ﬁliam Gilberti de Aquila, qua defuncti et sepulta apud Norton.”
Alice’s parents were Gilbert de l’Aigle and Isobel (Warenne/de Lacy). Isobel was the second daughter of Hamelin, Earl of Warenne and sister of William Warenne. Her first marriage was to Robert de Lacy and after his death she married Gilbert. There had been connections between the Warennes and the de Lacys since the Conquest, so a marriage between John de Lacy and Alice de l’Aigle is not unexpected.
I’ve seen 1214 given as a marriage date but haven’t verified it. I’ve also seen 1216 given as a date of death for Alice, but she was certainly dead before 1221 when John de Lacy remarried (Margaret de Quincy). Given that Alice died shortly after her marriage it is possible she died in childbirth. With this in mind I was intrigued by a new facial reconstruction that is on display at Norton of a young woman who was buried there and was pregnant – the remains of the foetus being found in her grave. I asked for more information about her and the site of her grave was in a part of the church used for burials from the 14th century onwards. So it’s unlikely that this is Alice de Lacy. Death in childbirth was all too common at the time and it would not have been an isolated incident.
Another artefact that had previously interested me was an ornate coffin lid that marked the grave of another Alice. New research shows that this was a lady named Alice de Helsby.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery to come out of the new research is the identification of the remains of Geoffrey de Dutton. There has been a facial reconstruction of his skull to show what he may have looked like. It also seems that he came to an untimely end, not dying of natural causes as previously thought, but at the hands of a murdered. There’s more about it here. And there is another link with the de Lacy family. It seems probable that Geoffrey’s wife was a daughter of John de Lacy.
Norton Priory has lots more fascinating stories to tell and the research is ongoing, so new matches of remains with historical people are possible. If you’re in the area do go in and have a look and support their work. I can highly recommend it.