Among the facets of Norwich's past, so often overlooked, is the fact of it being a great monastic city. Not only was the Cathedral served by a House of Benedictine monks under a Prior, with the Bishop as titular Abbot, but there was also a substantial daughter house in St. Leonard's Priory. The four main Orders of Friars (Austin, Carmelite, Dominican and Franciscan) all had large houses in the city, together with lesser Orders such as the Pied Friars and the Friars of the Sack. Today's Assembly House occupies the site of a House of Secular Canons. Norwich was very much the regional capital with its Diocese stretching to the River Stour. It is true that within the vast area of jurisdiction there were places where the Bishop's writ did not run, such as that subject to the great Abbey of St. Edmundsbury, but many Abbots and Priors had town houses in the city,. Other than the Cathedral, perhaps the greatest remaining evidence of all this is the St. Andrew's and Blackfriars Halls complex, since the loss of London Blackfriars during the last war the largest Dominican Friary Church extant in England.
Just outside the City Walls, in the area running from the Ber Street and South Gates towards the River Yare, stood the Priory of Carrow, a House of Benedictine nuns under a Prioress. The heart of the Priory was the Priory Church, one of the largest in Norwich outside the Cathedral, somewhat bigger than St. Peter Mancroft. The Church was of the usual cruciform style with a square east end, the setting for the high altar, with north and south transepts and the cloister to the south taking advantage of its warmer orientation. The nave was of seven bays and today much of the site of this is covered by the modern Carrow Works dining room. Like many monastic houses, it has had the title "Abbey" bestowed upon during the centuries following its dissolution but technically the House ranked as a Priory. The residence that survived the dissolution of the religious house has long been known as Carrow Abbey.
It was King Stephen, not one of our most popular kings, who by charter gave some of his lands on the outskirts of Norwich to "God and the Church of St. Mary and St. John of Norwich, and the nuns serving there" with an instruction to the nuns to found their Church on these lands. Two sisters, Seyna and Lescelena, who may also have been sisters by birth, began building the Priory in 1146. They dedicated their Church to St. Mary of Carhowe. They chose a site between the heights of Bracondale and the River Wensum, slightly above the marshy ground which surrounded the river itself. A favourite derivation of the name "Carrow" is from "Car", a marshy spot and "How", a hill.
It is not known how long was taken over the building of the Priory but its Church was mainly Norman and Early English work, the chancel , tower and transepts being older than the nave and aisles, which were thirteenth century additions. The Priory, as a whole, consisted of a group of buildings arranged in the general system customary to religious houses of the Benedictine Order. Pre-eminent in size and beauty was the Church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St John the Evangelist. (Messent suggests the dual dedication was to the Priory and the Church to the Blessed Virgin alone). There was a Chapter House, opening off the Cloister, in which the daily business of the Priory was conducted, with a Day Room to the south of the Chapter House with dormitories above. It was in the Cloister that much of the nuns' working hours would have been spent. The nuns would have been around twelve in number, not great but comparable to the monks at Wymondham Abbey, to which total could be added servants and 'hinds' or agricultural labourers. The Priory owned land in over fifty villages, from Ludham in the east to Redenhall in the south, together with land in Norwich and even market stalls for which the City paid rent. Chaplains served the Priory and there was an interesting contact with the City in that the Priory provided the priests serving the chapel or oratory in the Market Cross which stood for some centuries in the Market Place.
In 1205, King John granted the nuns an annual fair, lasting for four days namely the day before the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day itself and the two following days. The nuns had certain privileges during these days, including taking toll of all who passed through Norwich, something which unsurprisingly led to disputes with the City authorities. The Priory maintained its fair for ninety years after which Prioress Amabilia surrendered the rights for "certain considerations". Another link with the City was forged in 1385 when the Saddlers and Spurriers held their Guild in Carrow Priory. The Guild met at the Sunday after Trinty at the Priory's high altar. On the following day they went to hear mass at the Cathedral, after which they returned in procession to Carrow, there to "hear a mass and offer a halfpenny".
The Priory had various "spiritual and temporal possessions" including one of which there is no record of the Prioress availing herself, the use of a common gallows on the hill by Ber Street gates. The Prioress had the mineral rights, certainly between the city wall and the river, and an excavated area, now a thickly wooded copse at the junction of Bracondale and King is evidence of chalk extraction.
The Bishop of Norwich was the Visitor of the Priory and the Records give evidence of some internal discord, including a complaint against the Prioress that she "lends too ready an ear to some of the sisters" and of "the thinness of the liquor kept". A complaint came from the Sacrist that "they do not possess a clock". This led to an injunction from the Bishop in 1526, " In the first place the prioress is ordered to get and keep in order a clock before next Michaelmas". The hand of Episcopal authority was obviously necessary at times.
There are enduring suggestions of a link between the Priory and the anchoress, Julian of Norwich. There is no precise evidence that Julian was a nun at Carrow but it is quite probable that she took her vows as a anchoress in the Priory Church. This famous lady was to find her repose in a cell on the southern side of St. Julian's Church in King Street in the City and it was here she had the visions which she wrote down as "The Revelations of Divine Love". This book has been acclaimed as the most beautiful of all the English mystical works and it reveals much humanity and charm in its authoress.
The last Prioress but one was Isobel Wygun and it was she who decided to build a new Prioress' House on to the existing Priory. It is this building, together with a late nineteenth century addition built by James Stuart that survives to this day. The Priory did not escape the fury of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, even when the King's Commissioners found evil practices in sixteen religious houses "save for the nuns of Carrow in Norwich" but it does say something of the way the good nuns led their lives. Prioress Wygun has left her rebus, a visual pun consisting of the letter 'Y' and a gun, which may be seen in the spandrels of the great stone fireplace in the parlour and at the top of the central door of the three leading on to the drive but it was a prioress' house for but a short time.
The new residence was presented to a courtier, Sir John Shelton, whose wife was the aunt of Anne Boleyn, whom the King had executed a little time before. Sir John promptly fell out with the city authorities by claiming his land was outside the city and by ploughing up some of the city's common lands. It was not until the 1556 charter that the city bounds were definitely established After Sir John, the Abbey and grounds passed through several hands including those of Sir Roger Kerrison, until in 1811 they were bought by Philip Martineau, a surgeon of distinction in both Norwich and London medical circles. Philip was of a Huguenot family who had fled from France to escape religious persecution and his niece was Harriet Martineau the writer on philosophical, social, political and religious subjects. It was Philip who owned the Bracondale Estate and built there in 1813 the house known as Bracondale Woods, the site of which is now occupied by County Hall.
In 1878, Carrow Abbey was bought by the firm of J &J Colman. The property abutted the works and there were obvious business reasons for acquiring it, and Mr Jeremiah Colman was living at Carrow House and looking at the Abbey daily across a meadow. Jeremiah had become a great collector of books - his library was later to be given to the city and is now the Colman Library. His librarian was hard pressed to find more room at Carrow House and it is said that when Mr. Colman had designs on his wife's jam cupboard everyone realised something had to be done. In any event, the Abbey became part of Colman property and much good work commenced. Jeremiah not only converted the Guest Hall into a library but did much to restore a neglected building into something like its form as built by Isabel Wygun. It was Carrow workmen who carefully excavated the Priory site and established the form of the Church.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Abbey had a new tenant in James Stuart, a Member of Parliament and member of the Privy Council, married to Jeremiah Colman's daughter Laura. Here was a man who left a strong mark on the Abbey. It was during his occupancy that all the portion of the house lying to the south of the entrance was built and, being a great gardener, James Stuart it was who enclosed and beautified the meadow and gardens between the Abbey and King Street, much of which still exists. Growing as a weed among the stones of the Priory is the plant Aristolochia Clematis or birthwort, a popular medicinal plant in medieval days, which may be a survivor from the nuns' herb garden.
In modern times, the word Carrow has come to have strong associations with mustard and football but it is pleasant to think of an earlier green place just outside the City walls where a group of women went about their devoted lives and where a great Church loomed above the river.