The recently reopened Norton Priory Museum. (Photo: H H Smith and Sons)

The museum at Norton Priory, an extensively excavated monastic site in Cheshire, reopened last summer after a major programme of redevelopment and expansion. Lucia Marchini pays a visit.

Excavation of the Augustinian priory founded at Norton in 1134 began under Patrick Greene (CA 31). In 1971, a team of local volunteers and prisoners set to work on the complex as part of the development of Runcorn New Town, aiming to expose the entirety of the remains and open the area to the public. This community project went on well into the 1980s. A site notebook from 1971 and binders with photographs from excavations, displayed in the new museum, celebrate some of this early dig history.

As well as attempting to bring together people from nearby Runcorn, the project left a lasting mark on the site. Despite the relatively modest appearance of the ruins in their present state (they consist largely of foundations, clearly marking out the floorplan of the monastic buildings, and coffins, with no Gothic arches in sight), they have undergone extensive investigation, leading to the claim that Norton is the most excavated monastic site in Europe.

While the in situ remains may be surpassed by those of other sacred sites, the architecture of the new museum is suitably impressive, with features such as new cedar cladding sitting neatly on top of an existing wall that is in part medieval, Tudor, and Georgian. The museum’s contents capture the former richness of the monastic site outside, showcasing around four times as many artefacts as in its previous incarnation – including fine sculpture, cloister fragments, ornately carved coffin lids, and coloured tiles. (Incidentally, it is now also the home of the national collection of quince trees.)

The rib-vaulted 12th-century undercroft. (Photo: Norton Priory Museum Trust)

Making an entrance

Rather than just focusing on the medieval life of Norton, the museum embraces the priory’s multiperiod usage. Indeed, the public consultation undertaken when redeveloping the museum showed there was an appetite for this approach. The priory was dissolved in 1536, and then sold to Sir Richard Brooke in 1545. The Brooke family were the owners of Norton for some four centuries, building on the land a Tudor home and later, in c.1740, a Georgian country house (demolished in 1928). The museum’s upstairs gallery – a new addition which offers clear views over the priory ruins through its large windows – presents a selection of artefacts that tell the story of the site under the Brookes’ ownership, including a charmingly illustrated invitation to a 21st birthday party in 1909.

The lofty entrance hall is dominated by the portico from the Brookes’ manor house. This was the downstairs entrance, which would have been used by staff in the Georgian home, but was later used as the main entrance by the Victorian Brooke family, who wanted to show off the medieval rooms beyond. As you pass through to the priory’s 12th-century undercroft, with its ribbed vaulting, there are two arches: the one to the right is a Norman original, dating from the late 12th century and moved here from elsewhere on the site, while the one on the left is a Victorian copy. The undercroft is also home to Georgian wine bins, added in the 1780s, showing that this particular medieval structure of the priory was much used over the centuries.

The other prominent feature of the entrance hall, and one of the highlights of the collections at Norton, is the church’s twice life-size red sandstone statue of St Christopher with fish swimming about his feet. This dates to the late 14th century and was most likely commissioned when the priory was elevated to the status of abbey in 1391. (The head of the infant Christ, borne on his shoulder, is thought to be a 17th-century restoration.) This had a postmonastic afterlife, too: photographs show it in use simply as a grand garden ornament, painted to make it look like it was cast from bronze. Analysis of traces of earlier paint on the stone has revealed how the statue would have been decorated when it stood against the wall of the abbey church, and now a projection lights it up at intervals so visitors can see this imposing St Christopher in his true colours.

Written in bone

Signs of Paget’s disease can be seen clearly in this skeleton with a thick skull. (Photo: L Marchini)

The museum is a site of active research. As well as displays on the recent work at Halton Castle (just visible atop a nearby hill from one of the museum’s windows; see CA 323) and videos explaining ongoing projects (such as the development of a portable method of radiocarbon dating), there are fascinating displays of human remains. Some 130 skeletons were discovered on the site. One, with cleanly sliced vertebrae, appears to have been murdered, but it is not his untimely end that makes these remains so interesting. Found in the nave of the priory church in a stone coffin with shields on the lid to signify his knightly status, this 13th-century male was a sufferer of Paget’s disease, a disorder that disrupts the normal repair and renewal process of bone, and that is these days rarely seen in anyone under 50. The skeleton has a cranium three times thicker than average.

This skeleton, thought to be that of a crusader named Geoffrey Dutton, is not the only one from Norton to show signs of Paget’s disease. Evidence of the condition was found in five other skeletons, spanning from the 13th to the 15th century. These make up 19% of individuals over 45 years of age buried at Norton, which is a higher proportion than is seen elsewhere in the UK and suggests a familial link. A display put together with the Paget’s Association and the Wellcome Trust contains the remains of another male with the condition and 3D models of certain bones; it reflects how important these skeletal collections are, and introduces the research that is now under way on the medieval bones in the hope that they can improve our understanding of Paget’s disease today.

Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, located near Runcorn in Cheshire, are open daily. Tickets start at £6.70 for an adult, and concessions are available. Visit www.nortonpriory.org for more details.

This review was published in CA 324.

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