Did the village of Docking have a Priory?

The substantially sized village of Docking sits approximately four miles from the west Norfolk coast and was inhabited as early as the Roman period; with countless amounts of pottery, coins and tile being found in gardens and fields, notwithstanding the discovery of Roman ditches.1 Despite all the historical remnants, the first documentary evidence of Docking appears in the Last Will and Testament of the then Bishop of Elmham, Aelfric, in 1038.2 Docking’s oldest building to stand the test of time is St. Mary’s church. This much loved church can be dated back to the fourteenth century with parts of the chancel having been built before 1348. It is furthermore suggested that this stone church may have replaced an earlier Saxon place of worship, however there is no current evidence to support this.

St Mary’s church, Docking

For the most part, keeping village history alive and relevant comes down to residents with a passion for the past and their community. This is no different for the village of Docking who have forty members3 in their Docking Heritage Group. As a clearly proactive group, they must have been excited when they were gifted historically significant documents by Eton College and even more so when these suggested that Docking had a much richer monastic history than previously believed. The papers, titled Royal Patents: Grant of manors, indicate that Docking once had a medieval priory. In modern terms the Grant of manors tells us that on 24 February 1462 a Grant of religious tenure was given to William Westbury. He received: the manor of Bledlow in Bucks, Cottisford, the alien priory of Stratfield Saye (and its possessions), the counties of Hants and Berks, the portion of the alien priories of Clairruissel in Normandy and the church of Mapledurham in the county of Oxford, the alien priories of Cogges and Minster Lovell in the same county (with their possessions), the manors or alien priories of Docking and Sporle in the county of Norfolk, a yearly farm of 13s 4d which the prior and convent of Thetford used to pay tax to the house of Cluny, a pension of 2 marks yearly which the priory and monks of Horsham St Faith of the order of St Benedict in the county of Norfolk used to pay the abbey of Conches, a pension of 40s yearly from the church of Alveley, in the county of Essex and the priory of Leominster in the county of Suffolk. William Westbury was given all of this on the condition that he would pray for the good estate of the King and of Cicely, his mother while they were alive, and for their souls after they had died and the souls of the King’s father, Richard late duke of York and their forebears, and the hospital of St Peter by Windsor.4

The question of Docking priory

There is no reference to Docking Priory and its whereabouts in contemporary historical books which cover the area of Norfolk and beyond. The most modern publication, Monasteries of Norfolk by Richard Le Strange briefly mentions ‘Docking priory’ however he leaves no indication as to its whereabouts or where he got his information from.5 There are however a few 17th and 18th century books and early 20th century academic papers written that mention the subject and it is those sources that I am going to examine in the hope to find a definitive answer as to whether Docking had a priory.

To give context, alien priories were religious establishments scattered throughout England that were headed by monastic institutions or ‘motherhouses’ in France.6 From the 12th century Docking priory (amongst others) was attached to the Minster Lovell priory in Oxfordshire which in turn was part of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary of Ivry in the diocese of Evreux in northern France.7 Research doesn’t cast any doubt over the fact that Docking had an alien cell in some form, however academics have found problems with the interpretation of exactly what that was.

In the 17th century Sir William Dugdale’s academic work on medieval history became very influential and in 1665 he published his Monasticon Anglicanum (or the history of the ancient abbies, and other monasteries, hospitals, cathedral and collegiate churches in England and Wales). As the earliest known collation of monastic houses, it could be assumed that Monasticon Anglicanum would be the most accurate source to consider when researching priories. However Phd student Chester William New, in 1916, discovered many errors in Monasticon Anglicanum which he largely attributes to the editors, specifically Thomas Tanner. New believes that the editors made many assumptions and ‘that there was a priory wherever Tanner said there was a priory’.8 In the latest publication available to New he discovered that there were one hundred and fifty three religious houses listed as alien priories, fifty three of which had no substantial evidence to show that a religious house of any kind stood in that place.9 In contradiction to himself, editor Thomas Tanner’s own work Notitia Monastica (or a short account of all the religious houses in England and Wales), published in 1695, claims ‘In the charter of endowment of the [above mentioned] college of Eton is mention of the alien priory of Dokkyng in this county (norfolk). If there were ever any foreign monks residing here, in all probability they were of the abby De Ibreio in Normandy, to which the parish church of this place was appropriated’.10 In New’s pursuit of earlier documentation for his dissertation, he refers to the Annales Monastici which is a compilation of key source texts collected from medieval English monasteries (written in Latin). From the manuscripts he quotes that in 1341 John Darcy had ‘the custody of the priory of Minster Lovell for the administration of all the fruits and issues of the churches of Docking and Esthall’.11 and to corroborate his findings he discovered in the Archaeologia (now called the Antiquaries Journal), the Queen Joan grant of 1413 which declares ‘the church of Docking parcel of the priory of Minster Lovell’.12

Francis Bloomfield who was seen as a largely reliable historian of his time (1739) and a rector at Fersfield, was another academic who also interpreted Docking’s religious house as a church. Bloomfield wrote ‘The endowment charter of Eton College mentions the alien priory of Docking. It was a small cell of the Benedictine abbey of Ivry in France, to which house the church was appropriated.’13 Nearly two hundred years later the Abbot Francis Aidan Gasquet published English Monastic Life, and amongst his list of religious houses is Docking. Notably it is recorded as being an order of an alien priory. Interestingly, it must be highlighted that amongst the hundreds of religious houses listed, not one of them is categorised as a church; the ‘key’ that Gasquet offers gives no such title as a church.14 

Academics aside, it is important to acknowledge how language was used in medieval England and how their terminology could differ from modern usage.  In the twelfth century the title prior wasn’t necessarily attributed to a man who was responsible for a priory. A church that had religious obligations to an abbey overseas was often called an alien priory and its rector a prior. A. K McHardy explains that the term ‘Alien Priory’ was  the title given to any property owned by the French houses, regardless of the actual structure which stood there.15 With this information in mind, it can be understood how misinterpretation could be made in translation without the religious house in question’s state of affairs been fully understood. In the case of Docking, A. J. Taylor believes that the mistake of calling Docking church a priory arose due to a long drawn out administrative error. In 1341 it had been the policy of the exchequer to annex revenues from Docking, Asthall and Minster Lovell as a single grant and refer to them as ‘the church of Dockyng, parcel of the priory of Munstre Lovell,’16 which in terms of finances was incorrect as Docking sent their payments direct to Ivry. This annex continued until the suppression of the alien houses in 1378 when it then became common to refer to any church that had previously been impropriated to a French motherhouse, as a priory. ‘Thus the foundation charter of Eton College includes the grant of the “alien priory” of Docking, a use of the term which has given rise to more than one misleading account of Docking church’.17

For historians such as myself and Docking Heritage Group, the notion that Docking once had a priory is an exciting one. However, it seems that Docking priory is a victim of mistaken identity. The sources discovered by both New and Bloomfield as well as Gasquet’s list of religious houses give information that is hard to dispute. Coupled with Taylor and McHardy’s revelation that the use of the word prior and priory had additional connotations to twenty-first century usage, a fair conclusion would be that there never was a priory in the village of Docking. Nevertheless, there may be more research to be done in respect of the age of Docking church. As mentioned, physical evidence indicates that St Mary’s has been standing since circa 1348, but research by both McHardy and Taylor reveals that documentation exists which references Docking’s religious house from as early as the 12th century. These sources in conjunction with the conclusion that Docking church and priory are one and the same, makes St Mary’s possibly nearly two hundred years older than currently thought.


1 Parish summary: Docking, Norfolk Heritage Explorer, accessed December 13, 2020,   http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?uid=%27TNF201%27.

2 Digitised Manuscripts, “Cotton MS Augustus II 85,” British Library, accessed December 1, 2020, http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Augustus_II_85.

3 Docking Heritage Group, “About us”, November 10, 2020, https://www.dockingheritage.org.uk/about-us/.

4 Collections Online Catalogue, “Royal Patents: Grant of Manors, Eton College, accessed October 30, 2020, https://catalogue.etoncollege.com/ecr-39-127.

5 Richard Le Strange, Monasteries of Norfolk, 1st ed.(Norfolk: Yates, 1973).

6 Alison McHardy and Nicholas Orme, “The Defence of an Alien Priory: Modbury (Devon) in the 1450s, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History,” 50, no.2 (1999): 303-312, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022046999001694.

7 A. J. Taylor, “The Alien Priory of Minster Lovell”, Oxoniensia no.2, (1937): 103-17, http://www.oxoniensia.org/volumes/1937/taylor.pdf.

8 Chester William New, “History of the Alien Priories in England to the Confiscation of Henry V: A…”, Collection Americana, (1916): https://archive.org/stream/historyalienpri00newgoog/historyalienpri00newgoog_djvu.txt

9 Chester William New, “History of the Alien Priories in England to the Confiscation of Henry V: A…”, Collection Americana, (1916): https://archive.org/stream/historyalienpri00newgoog/historyalienpri00newgoog_djvu.txt

10 Thomas Tanner, Notitia monastic, (London: William Bowyer, 1744), 358, online, https://archive.org/details/notitiamonastica00tann

11 Chester William New, “History of the Alien Priories in England to the Confiscation of Henry V: A…”, Collection Americana, (1916): https://archive.org/stream/historyalienpri00newgoog/historyalienpri00newgoog_djvu.txt

12 Chester William New, “History of the Alien Priories in England to the Confiscation of Henry V: A…”, Collection Americana, (1916): https://archive.org/stream/historyalienpri00newgoog/historyalienpri00newgoog_djvu.txt

13. Francis Bloomfield, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk. Vol. X, (London: W Bulmer & co, 1809), online, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=wdsvAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA362&lpg=PA362&dq=blomefield+history+of+norfolk+docking&source=bl&ots=_5q2K-bCri&sig=ACfU3U05AmBc2xA1rsfqSRikQ4TzLRndag&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiU496sm7rjAhVju3EKHW8jAm8Q6AEwD3oECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=blomefield%20history%20of%20norfolk%20docking&f=false

14. Abbot Gasquet, English Monastic Life, (London: Methuen & co, 1904) online,   https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42614/42614-h/42614-h.htm#Page_251

15. A. K. McHardy “The alien priories and the expulsion of aliens from England in 1378”, Studies in Church History, Volume 12: Church Society and Politics, (1975) 133 – 141: https://doi.org/10.1017/S042420840000961X

16. A. J. Taylor, “The Alien Priory of Minster Lovell”, Oxoniensia no.2, (1937): 103-17, http://www.oxoniensia.org/volumes/1937/taylor.pdf.

17. A. J. Taylor, “The Alien Priory of Minster Lovell”, Oxoniensia no.2, (1937): 103-17, http://www.oxoniensia.org/volumes/1937/taylor.pdf.

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