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Birkenhead Priory

S Grid ref:- SJ 328 886

Birkenhead Priory, which is located in Priory Street, Birkenhead, was founded about 1150, probably by Hamon de Masci, 3rd Baron of Dunham Massey for the Benedictine Order on what was then a thickly wooded headland.

Bendedictine monks wore black habits, hence the term "Black Monk", which has come to signify a Benedictine. The traditional monastic habit of the Benedictines consisted of a tunic, tied at the waist by a belt of leather or cloth, a scapular, originally a work apron, the width of the shoulders, that reaches somewhere between the knees and the hem of the tunic; and a hood.

The life and work of the Benedictine Monks in a monastic community was based on St. Benedict's need to draw a sharp line between the monastic life and that of the outside world. Hence he required that, as far as possible, each monastery should form an independent, self-supporting community whose monks had no need of going beyond its limits for anything.

The priory is grade I listed building and a scheduled ancient monument, much of the original building still remains and other parts have been sympathetically restored.

Birkenhead PrioryThe ancient red sandstone priory is said to be the first building on the Wirral and was originally isolated on a headland overlooking the River Mersey, but is now entirely hemmed in by what remains of the shipyard graving docks and various industrial buildings.

The cloister, minus its arcades, still remains today as do many of the surrounding monastic buildings.

To the east of the cloister square stands the chapter house, the sole part of the original foundation which remains. The chapter house is rectangular in shape and consists of two rib-vaulted bays, sadly preserving only one of its original side windows.

A second storey was added in the fourteenth century, which is now known as the Scriptorium, a room devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes.

In the north range, the imposing fourteenth century vaulted undercroft of the refectory can be found, and to the west the thirteenth to fourteenth century buildings of the guest hall and prior's lodging. Romanesque sculpture is found in the vault supports of the chapter house, which retains items of Norman architecture.

Birkenhead PrioryAccording to the historian John McInnis, visitors to Birkenhead Priory:-

"Could scarcely recall now the beauty of its former setting. These folk as they stood there looking about them with eyes of interest. Could have no idea what the Priory, had once been as it stood on its beautiful peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, a headland of oak and birch and meadow crowned with red sandstone"

According to the Tudor antiquarian, John Leland, the priory was founded for sixteen monks and was a cell of Chester Abbey.

The Priory recieved two visits from King Edward I due to its strategic importance being close to the borders of Wales, the king visited the priory in 1275 and 1277.

In 1318 the monks from Birkenhead Priory were granted ferry rights by King Edward II. This allowed them to build a house in what is now Water Street to store their corn. The house was also used by travellers for shelter if the weather was too bad for the ferry to cross the River Mersey. In 1310 the prior and convent complained to the royal council that there were no inns nearer than Chester for travellers using the ferry and neither the revenues of the house, barely 200 marks a year, nor its buildings sufficed for the burdens of hospitality; they asked permission to build lodgings at the ferry and sell food to the passengers.

In 1317 the Crown licensed them to build lodgings to house travellers delayed by the weather and in the following year those in charge of the lodgings were allowed to buy and sell food. The fees them charged by the Liverpool ferrymen elicited complaints from the inhabitants of Wirral and in 1330 Edward III, as a mark of favour to the monks and to travellers, granted the priory the right to ferry men, horses, and goods across the Mersey and to charge reasonable tolls.

In 1436, Birkenhead Priory was the scene of a notorious crime, Isabel, the widow of Sir John Butler of Bewsey Old Hall near Warrington, was abducted by William Poole, a member of the Wirral family which supplied stewards for the priory in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, forcibly married to him in Bidston Church, and imprisoned at Birkenhead where she was discovered by Sir Thomas Stanley.

The priory was was included in the list of monasteries worth less than 200 a year and dissolved at the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, probably in May or June of 1536. The site was restored from 1898-1919 and the Chapter House was dedicated as a chapel in 1919.

Birkenhead PrioryThe site continues to develop with museums displays. A wide variety of events, from wedding receptions to educational conferences, classic music concerts and open-air theatre, to re-enactments of life in Viking times, are held there.

The priory's chapter house is consecrated as an Anglican church, and is still used for services. There is a chapel dedicated to the training ship HMS Conway.

There is a museum on the site detailing the fascinating history of the priory. A section of Triassic sandstone bearing the footprints of Chirotherium, a dinosaur which once roamed the Wirral area, is also on display in the museum. The slab was unearthed from nearby Higher Bebington White Freestone Quarry, owned by Charles Wells, in 1906.

St Mary's, the first parish church of the town of Birkenhead, survives now as only a tower and spire, having been demolished in the 1970's. The tower is now dedicated as a memorial to the 99 men lost in the 1939 disaster aboard the Laird's built submarine HMS Thetis.

This late-Georgian church ruin, which retains its cast iron tracery in the surviving windows, is available to climb the 101 stairs to give unrivalled views across the Mersey Estuary- on a clear day Runcorn Bridge is visible from the top of the tower.

The churchyard contains the burial vault of the Laird family, which includes John Laird (1805-74), Birkenhead's first Member of Parliament and co-founder of the adjacent Cammell Laird shipbuilding company.

Entrance to the Priory is free.

Birkenhead Park

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