The new museum at Norton Priory

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.

A viewing gallery has been built above the undercroft.
A viewing gallery has been built above the undercroft.

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.

St Christopher statue
The huge statue of St Christopher would originally have been painted in bright colours.
The new atrium
The new atrium brings everything under one roof.







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.’

Chapter House gravesMy 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.

The undercroft
The tiling in the undercroft has been restored.

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.

Norton facial reconstruction female
This young woman died late in her pregnancy.

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.

Alice coffin lid
The ‘Alice’ coffin lid.

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.

These remains were buried in the nave of the church.
These remains were buried in the nave of the church.
Geoffrey de Dutton may have looked like this.
This is what Geoffrey de Dutton may have looked like.

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.



The Queen, the Duke of Lancaster!

Lancaster Castle
Lancaster Castle

Tomorrow (Friday 29th May 2015) the queen will make a private visit to Lancaster Castle to mark the 750th anniversary of the creation of the Duchy of Lancaster. She will also visit a farm in Myerscough which has been owned continuously by the Duchy since its creation in the 13th century when King Henry III, gave the honour, county, town and castle of Lancaster to his younger son, Edmund ‘Crouchback’ (brother of Edward I), along with the title Earl of Lancaster.

After the death of Edmund, the earldom passed to his son, Thomas, who was married to Alice de Lacy, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, in an agreement that would see the de Lacy lands also pass to Thomas, combining the honour of Clitheroe with the honour of Lancaster. However, Thomas rebelled against his cousin Edward II and was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. He was executed as a traitor and all his lands were forfeit to the crown. (You can read more about Alice de Lacy in my novels Favoured Beyond Fortune and The Circle of Fortune.)

Thomas’ younger brother Henry, the 3rd Earl of Lancaster, recovered some of the lands during the reign of Edward III.  In December 1326 he was granted, ‘to hold during the King’s pleasure’ the honours of Lancaster, Tutbury and Pickering with their castles and other former family estates.  After Henry’s death in 1345 his son, Henry Grosmont succeeded him as Earl of Lancaster.  Henry Grosmont was one of the most celebrated noblemen of his day.  He took part in many of Edward III’s military campaigns and ‘in recognition of astonishing deeds of prowess and feats of arms’ Edward III created him 1st Duke of Lancaster on the 6th March 1351.  In the same charter, the king raised Lancashire to a County Palatine for Henry’s lifetime.  This meant that the Duke had sovereign rights in the county.  The law courts were under his administration and he appointed the sheriff, judges, justices of the peace and other senior officials.  In medieval England, Palatinate powers were used in regions where central government was difficult and the creation of Lancashire as a County Palatine may have been intended as a protective barrier against the Scots.

When Henry Grosmont died in 1361 without a male heir, the ducal title became extinct and the palatinate powers reverted to the king.  Henry Grosmont left two daughters, Maud and Blanche.  Blanche, who held Lancaster as part of her dowry, had married the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt, in 1359 and when her sister Maud died without children in 1362 the whole of her father’s inheritance passed to her.  John of Gaunt was created 1st Duke of Lancaster (second creation) in 1362.  John recovered many more of the Lancaster possessions that had been lost in 1322 and on 28th February 1377, Edward recreated the Palatinate for John’s lifetime.  Then, in 1390, the grant was extended to include John’s heirs.

Pontefract Castle
Pontefract Castle

When Edward III died in 1377 his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, became king and John of Gaunt acted as Regent.  But John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, had a disagreement with the king and in 1398 he was banished from the kingdom for six years.  When John of Gaunt died in 1399, Richard II confiscated the Lancaster inheritance and extended Henry’s banishment to a lifetime sentence.  However, Henry returned to claim his lands and, with the support of leading families, he regained control of the Lancastrian strongholds, captured Richard II, forced his abdication and imprisoned him in Pontefract Castle (the original seat of the de Lacy family).

Henry Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV on 13th October 1399 and one of his first acts was the Charter of Duchy Liberties, later known as the Great Charter of the Duchy, which specified that the Lancaster inheritance should be held separately from other Crown possessions and should descend to Henry’s male heirs.  This meant that even if Henry lost the throne he would not lose his Lancastrian inheritance.

The Duchy passed down through Henry V to Henry VI and when Edward IV took the throne during the years known as the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI’s possessions, including the Duchy, were declared forfeit and held by the new king, although Edward IV kept the arrangement by which the Duchy was administered separately from other Crown possessions.  By Act of Parliament, he incorporated the Duchy possessions under the title ‘The Duchy of Lancaster’ to be held ‘forever to us and our heirs, Kings of England, separate from all other Royal possessions.’

After Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, the houses of Lancaster and York were united but a charter of that year confirmed the Duchy of Lancaster as separate from other Crown lands, and under its own management. There has been no new settlement since.

During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1556 the Duchy was described as ‘one of the most famous, princeliest and stateliest pieces of the Queen’s ancient inheritance’, however James I and Charles I sold large parts of the Duchy to make money.  After the execution of Charles I in 1649 the Duchy ceased to exist although Cromwell did preserve the jurisdiction of the County Palatine of Lancaster.

Following the restoration of Charles II in May 1660 the Duchy was returned, but sales or grants of the land continued.  During the next century the Duchy was almost bankrupt and when George III surrendered his other hereditary estates (except the Duchy of Cornwall) in return for an annual Civil List payment the Duchy of Lancaster was not even mentioned, either because it was worth so little or because it was separate from the hereditary revenues of the Crown.

During the reign of George III the fortunes of the Duchy improved and in the reign of Queen Victoria the Chancellor of the Exchequer considered giving up the Duchy to the public purse.  The Duchy Council successfully argued that this would increase public expense but it was agreed that the Duchy should publish a full financial report to both Houses of Parliament, an arrangement that continues to this day.

The River Hodder at Whitewell.
The River Hodder at Whitewell.

The Duchy of Lancaster continues to provide the Sovereign of the day with a source of income independent from Government and the public purse. The Duchy is self-financing and does not rely upon public funds in connection with its activities.  The present Queen, the Duke of Lancaster, retains a keen interest in the Duchy and was once quoted as saying that she would like to retire to the Whitewell Estates in the ancient Royal Hunting Forest of Bowland, which was an ancient Duchy possession.  In Lancashire the Duchy owns five agricultural estates located between Preston and Lancaster, covering an area of 11,500 acres.  They are Myerscough, Wyreside, Whitewell, Salwick and Winmarleigh.  Only Myerscough has been owned by the Duchy continuously, the others having been purchased or repurchased over the years.  Of course, Lancaster Castle is also a Duchy possession. And in Lancashire the loyal toast remains ‘The Queen, Duke of Lancaster!’ I’m sure she will be made very welcome tomorrow.





Denbigh Castle

P1030122Denbigh Castle in north Wales is one of the fortresses built after Edward I’s subjugation of the Welsh. The hilltop site was previously a stronghold of the Welsh and Dafydd ap Gruffudd had a palace here, but it was destroyed when Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, built his castle in 1282.

The castle has a striking triple towered gatehouse, P1030068probably designed by Master James of St George. As I approached the ruins I heard the sound of the portcullis being raised and horses hooves echoing across the drawbridge. It wasn’t psychic powers, but a recording and a hidden sensor, and although it was entertaining at first, it did become annoying after a while as more and more visitors approached. More interesting for me was the carved figure, headless now, seated above the gateway. Is this Henry de Lacy? I think so.

It was here in the castle well that Henry’s eldest son, Edmund de Lacy, is said to have drowned. It’s a deep well and although there is no water in it now, it’s easy to imagine how dangerous it must have been. P1030118


Denbigh was built in two phases. The first phase during 1282 to 1284 was the constructionP1030107 of the outer walls which also surrounded the town for defensive purposes. But rebellion by the Welsh halted the work and it was not until 1295 that the bulk of the castle, including the towers, was begun.

Climbing up onto the wall walk, the strategic position of the castle is obvious as you look down over the town and across the Vale of Clwyd. No one could have approached this fortress without being seen.











The building work went on until the beginning of the 14th century and it isn’t clear if it wasP1030110 completed by the death of Henry de Lacy in 1311. Because of the death of his son, Edmund, the castle passed into the possession of Henry’s daughter Alicia and her husband, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, but after Lancaster’s rebellion against Edward II, the castle was taken from Alicia and given to Hugh le Despenser. Even when Despenser was replaced by Roger Mortimer, Denbigh was still withheld from Alicia and it was not until after Edward III took his throne that the castle was returned to her.

You can read more about Alicia’s fight for the return of her lands in my novel The Circle of Fortune.

Who was Eble le Strange?

According to Dugdale the le Strange family originated from a mythical Duke of Burgundy, whose youngest son Guy made his home in England.  Although there is no credibility to this story, the family can be traced back to the twelfth century when they held land in Norfolk and Shropshire.

The le Strange family were closely associated with the Fitz Alans who became Earls of Arundel. William Fitz Alan, Lord of Oswestry was a Breton and a close ally of King Henry I who brought men he could trust from France after he experienced disloyalty from some of the original Norman lords over his right to the throne. This William died in 1160, leaving his son William as a minor and Guy le Strange was appointed as his guardian. Guy le Strange was given the lordship of Knockin in Shropshire and it is from him that Eble le Strange was descended.


Knockin Castle, Shropshire. Pencil and watercolour. Artist: T.F. Dukes (attrib.). Shrewsbury Museums Service (SHYMS: FA/1991/088/2)
Knockin Castle, Shropshire. Pencil and watercolour. Artist: T.F. Dukes (attrib.). Shrewsbury Museums Service (SHYMS: FA/1991/088/2)

Eble le Strange was the third son of John le Strange (V), the first Lord Strange of Knockin (sometimes spelt Knockyn) in Shropshire. John le Strange was married twice. His first wife was Alianora (Eleanor) de Monz, the daughter of Eble de Monz (a royal steward and lord of Ketton in Rutland) and Joan de Somery.(Because John witnessed some grants alongside Joan de Somery after the death of Alianora she is sometimes mistakenly taken for his wife rather than his mother-in-law). John and Alianora may have had a daughter, Hawise, who married Sir Robert de Felton. After Alianora died, John’s second wife was Maud (Walton) d’Eiville, the daughter of Roger d’Eiville of Walton d’Eiville in Warwickshire. She was the mother of Eble le Strange. Eble le Strange had two elder brothers John and Hamon who were both dead by 1322 and a sister, Elizabeth. The occurrence of Eble as a forename in the le Strange family had not occurred before and I wonder if he was named after the father of John le Strange’s first wife. Eble de Monz was still living as late as 1307 and may have been his godfather.

Eble le Strange probably grew up in Shropshire until he was old enough to enter the household of another family to learn to fight, read and write and wait tables. He is recorded as being a member of the household of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1313 when he is included with his brother Hamon, and his cousins Fulk and Robert of Blackmere, in the pardon, granted on 16th October, to the adherents of the Earl of Lancaster for the death of Piers Gaveston. It may have been whilst he was serving in the household of Thomas of Lancaster that he first met Alice de Lacy, but when and where they met remains open to speculation as there is no evidence. But the accusations that Eble le Strange had a relationship with Alice de Lacy before the death of Thomas of Lancaster cannot be dismissed. Certainly they married as soon as they could after Thomas was executed and were married before 10th November 1324 when the Sheriff of Lincoln was ordered to pay

Lincoln Castle
Lincoln Castle

Eble and ‘Alice, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, late Earl of Lincoln, now his wife’ the arrears of £20 yearly for the third part of the county of Lincoln. And looking at other payments made to them they could possibly have been married as soon as Easter 1324.

On 24th January 1326 Eble was appointed one of the four supervisors of Array in the county of Lincoln, with special powers and by a further commission he was directed, on 23rd July ‘to assist and counsel the Earl of Arundel as captain and chief supervisor of the Array in Lincolnshire’. The last mention of him during the reign of Edward II is on December 9, 1326, when he obtained letters of protection for a year – although what the protection was for is not recorded. Although he was entitled to call himself the Earl of Lincoln through his marriage to Alicia, it seems that he did not use the title and when he was called to parliament in December 1326 he was named as Ebulo le Strange and ranked with the barons. He was not even made a knight until a year after his marriage when he was made a Knight of the Bath by Edward II and received the robes of a Banneret. During the minority of Edward III when Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer were ruling England, Eble and Alicia seem to have come under suspicion of promoting rebellion and I can’t dismiss the idea that Eble may have been one of the men who helped Edward III secure his throne by overthrowing Mortimer in a midnight raid from the tunnels beneath Nottingham Castle.

Remains of Bolingbroke Castle
Remains of Bolingbroke Castle

After Edward III became king, Eble and Alice regained many of the lands that had been taken from her after Thomas of Lancaster’s defeat at Boroughbridge, including her favourite home at Bolingbroke. That Edward found Eble trustworthy and reliable is also emphasised by his being named as one of the men sent to bring Queen Isabella from Berkhampstead to Windsor for Christmas 1330.

The remains of Barlings Abbey.
The remains of Barlings Abbey.

 Eble and Alicia appear to have been happy and in the favour of the king after many difficultyears. But in 1335, Edward III invaded Scotland and, tragically, Eble died whilst on campaign. He was buried at Barlings Abbey in Lincolnshire where, later, Alicia would be buried beside him.