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.



John de Lacy – Magna Carta baron

John de Lacy was one of the twenty-five barons who forced King John to agree to the The de Lacy armsterms of Magna Carta in June 1215. He was probably the youngest of the barons and the last to withdraw support from the king and join the rebel army.

John de Lacy was the son of Roger de Lacy and his wife, Maud, or Matilda, de Clere. He was born about 1192 and was still a minor when his father died in 1211, becoming a ward of the king, although he may have already been living at court as he had been held as a hostage during his father’s lifetime to ensure Roger’s loyalty.

John came of age in September 1213 and had to pay a huge fine to King John of 7000 marks, repayable over the coming three years, for possession of his father’s estates, which comprised more than 100 knights’ fees along with the baronies of Pontefract, Clitheroe, Penwortham, Widnes and Halton.  He took an oath and signed a charter confirming the terms of payment, which included a clause that if he left the king’s service and joined his enemies he would forfeit all the lands.  Twenty of his tenants guaranteed these terms and agreed that they would remain loyal to the king even if their lord turned against him.  He was also forced to surrender his castles at Pontefract in Yorkshire and Donington in Leicestershire to be garrisoned by the king at his own expense.

It was not surprising then that, at first, John de Lacy appeared to be loyal to King John. In June 1214, he was given some respite in the terms of his payments and Castle Donington was returned to him in return for the surrender of hostages, including his younger brother. The following month he accompanied the king in his, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to win back his lost lands in France. He was still at court in March 1215, and on the fifth of that month was pardoned the final 4200 marks that he still owed to the king for his inheritance.

When King John refused to meet with the barons at Northampton in April to reply to their demands and London opened its gates to the rebels, civil war seemed inevitable. As late as 31st May, John de Lacy appeared to be loyal to the king, but, in the end, he withdrew his support and was named as one of the baronial council of 25 at Runnymede – an act for which he was excommunicated by the Pope. He was given command of the rebel forces in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

Although he added his seal to the Magna Carta, King John did not abide by its terms for long.  He captured Castle Donington on 1st January 1216, forcing John de Lacy to make terms with him and once again surrender his brother as a hostage.  In the April, John de Lacy was restored to his manor of Lytham in Oxfordshire, and in May he was in Kent with the king, but he had rebelled again before the king’s death in October that year.

After the defeat of the rebel army at Lincoln, John de Lacy swore fealty to the new king, Henry III, under the regency of William Marshal, but his thoughts had already turned to the Holy Land and in May 1218, he accompanied Ranulph, Earl of Chester on crusade.  It seems that he was also accompanied by two priests from his lands – one from Kippax and one from Aberford, as they were witnesses to a charter granted in Damietta that year of land to the church at Pontefract.

John returned to England with Ranulph in 1220 and the following year was married to Ranulph’s niece, Margaret de Quincy. This was his second marriage. He had been previously married to Alice de l’Aigle who was the daughter of Gilbert de l’Aigle and Isabella, the widow of Robert de Lacy (2). Alice had died. There is no date of death recorded for her but she was buried at Norton Priory.

The only place I have seen the banner displayed is in the great hall of Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.
The only place I have seen the banner displayed is in the great hall of Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.

Margaret de Quincy was the daughter of Robert de Quincy and Hawise, who was the sister of Ranulf. It was agreed before Ranulf’s death, in 1232, that his title of Earl of Lincoln should pass through his sister Hawise to John as her son-in-law.  On 22nd November 1232, John was granted the third penny of the county of Lincolnshire although Ranulf’s principal barony, Bolingbroke, was retained by Hawise until her death in 1243. On receiving the earldom, John de Lacy adopted the arms of the rampant purple lion on a golden background.

John de Lacy became influential at court during the reign of Henry III.   In February 1221, following the rebellion of William de Forz, he assisted in the siege of Skipton Castle. He witnessed the reissue of the Magna Carta in 1225 and in 1226 was appointed a justice in Lincolnshire and Lancashire. In 1227, he was one of the royal envoys who went to Antwerp for negotiations with the German princes and in 1230 he accompanied the king’s expedition to Brittany and Poitou, receiving the manors of Collingham in Yorkshire and Bardsey in Lincolnshire as a reward for his service.

He was present at the marriage of Henry with Eleanor of Provence in his official role as Constable of Chester and it is recorded that  ‘according to his office’ he kept back the crowd ‘with his rod or warder’ when they pressed forward in a disorderly manner.

In the autumn of 1233, he helped to defend the Welsh marches against a rebellion headed by Richard Marshal.  The chronicler, Roger of Wendover, claims that he was bribed to abandon Richard Marshal, an allegation substantiated by the award to John de Lacy of the wardship of the heir and lands of Nigel de Mowbray in return for a relatively modest 1000 marks.

John retained his position at court and was a leading royal counsellor, but he began to suffer ill health and died on 22nd July 1240, leaving a son, Edmund, who had been born in 1230 and a daughter, Maud, married to Richard de Clare, heir to the earldom of Gloucester – an arrangement for which John de Lacy paid 3000 marks. It is thought that Peter of Chester, the long-lived rector of Whalley in Lancashire, was also a son of John de Lacy.

John de Lacy was buried near his father, Roger de Lacy, at Stanlaw Abbey and his remains were later removed to Whalley when the monks transferred there.


The remains of the de Lacy grave at Whalley Abbey.
The remains of the de Lacy grave at Whalley Abbey.