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Pillage and prayer mark Blakeney’s past

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Map of Blakeney port and the Friary on a map drawn up in 1586 - image courtesy Norfolk Records Office
Map of Blakeney showing its port and the Friary in 1586 (Image courtesy of Norfolk Record Office)

Piracy and prayer were features of the coastal settlement we now call Blakeney. The coastal settlement appeared in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Esnuterle and later Snitterley. Its first appearance under the name Blakeney was in the 13th century.

In Old English, Blakeney meant ‘an island or dry ground in marsh’. This name stuck as Blakeney became more wealthy and important. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the most important ports in England.

But far from the pretty and peaceful North Norfolk coastal village known to visitors now, Blakeney had a reputation for piracy from the 12th century.

Between 1328 and 1350 it is recorded that men of Blakeney boarded two ships sailing from Flanders and sailed them into Blakeney haven, where they were stripped of their cargoes.

Many foreign merchant ships had their cargo stolen as they sought shelter in the haven – the sheltered area behind Blakeney Point and incorporating the ports of Cley, Wiveton and Blakeney.

The first written records documenting maritime trade at both Blakeney and Cley-next-the-Sea begin in the 1200s. At this time both settlements were well-established ports with a coastal and foreign trade centred around fish. Boat building was also an important trade from the medieval period until the nineteenth century. The town was asked to supply ships to Edward III in the 1320s-40s for various military campaigns.

But the villagers were still so lawless in the 16th century that it is said they refused to supply a ship for the battle against the Spanish Armada, the fleet of 130 Spanish ships gathered to escort an army to invade England in May 1588.

But it was not all smuggling, thievery and boat building for military campaigns.

In the late 1200s, The White Friars of the Carmelite Order arrived in Blakeney and established a friary dedicated to the honour of the Blessed Virgin.

The establishment of the friary in 1296 reflected Blakeney’s importance as a trading port, as the Carmelites generally preferred larger towns; this was because they survived on charitable donations rather than revenue from land.

The friars built a church and friary on 13.5 acres of land overlooking Blakeney Marshes which was given to them and with the permission of King Edward I and the lord of the town, Sir William Roos. They also built a chapel by the quayside to bless the fishing boats.

The Friars were obliged to pray for Sir William and his wife Lady Maud, as their principal founders. Sir William, who distinguished himself in the Crusades, was knighted and granted land at Cley and Blakeney by the king.

Sir William gave the friars 100 marks towards the buildings, and built their hall and kitchen, as well as proper chambers suitable for him and his heirs to stay.

The consecration took place in 1302. All the building work was completed by Sir William’s son William in 1321.

Records show that the prior and the friars prospered and extended their land by several acres.

The chancel of St Nicholas Church, dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of fishing, was also built by the friars.

Blakeney’s friary was suppressed in 1538 during the Reformation, when Henry VIII set up the Church of England and ordered it to break away from the Pope and the established church in Rome.

Little of the friary remains today. Some sections of masonry survive in what is now Friary Farmhouse. A length of medieval flint wall with a gateway remains, marking to this day the site of the former friary. This can be seen from the public footpath running along National Trust land off Back Lane, Blakeney.

The flint walls and archway are all that remains of the 14th century friary at Blakeney
Little remains of the Friary which overlooked Blakeney marshes and the sea beyond

Much of the friary site is now a holiday caravan park just east of the village centre and extends to the privately owned Friary Farmhouse. The house has a date-stone: "1667 T.R.I" and is made of flint and brick with some stone quoins. There is also a grade two listed windmill in Friary Park. Blakeney windmill is identified on this spot on a map in 1769. The Doomsday Book mentions several mills in Blakeney.

A final aside to demonstrate Blakeney’s importance is that this small settlement of fewer than 1,000 people had a bell foundry in the 17th century.

Five bells made for Blakeney’s St Nicholas’ Church were cast by bell founder Charles Newman in Blakeney in 1699. Four of the bells were sold in 1802 to pay for repairs to the church roof. Nobody knows where Newman’s foundry was sited but the one remaining bell still chimes in St Nicholas’ Church.

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