The coastal village of Butley sits comfortably between Woodbridge and Orford. On first impressions, it may appear to be nothing more than a picturesque retreat, however, the history of the site in fact speaks of a vibrant past.
Butley Priory was founded in the year 1171. At the time, the country was dominated by the Christian faith, but a clash between the Church and State in 1171 caused uproar and unsettlement, which peaked with the murder of Archbishop, Thomas Becket. As a result, the then King, Henry II, made decisions to establish a number of religious foundations in an attempt to restore public trust.
It is here that courtier Ranulph de Glanville steps in. During this time, Ranulph was gaining more and more prestige within society through being both a successful general and a constitutional lawyer. Ranulph, along with his wife Bertha, was interested in setting up their own monastery. With part of Bertha’s dowry from wealthy father Theobald de Valonies behind them, they started looking for the ideal site.
One particular site lay in the Hundred of Plomesgate, on the over-land, coastal route connecting the Port of Ipswich to the King’s new castle in Orford. In the 12th Century, Orford was predicted to grow rapidly as a port and coastal haven. Ranulph also considered Butley Creek when looking at the site, which would allow for easy transportation of building stone, as well as providing both fresh and saltwater, perfect for maintaining the protein-rich fish monastic diet.
The location was ideal. Presumably echoing the King’s decisions following the murder, Ranulph decided to form Butley Priory. King Henry recognised this noble step by rewarding Ranulph with numerous manors, including Benhall.
Ranulph and Bertha’s vision for the Priory was clear. Instead of having a house of monks, they wanted ordained priests (or Black Canons) living on the Priory, following the rules set by St Augustine. It was decided that Butley Priory would become the home for 36 Canons. In order to configure accommodation, buildings were planned on a large scale.
When built, the Priory held a vast collection of buildings, covering around twenty acres, circled by a stone wall. Experts believe that the stone used for the building of the Priory was imported from the valley of the Yonne in France by barges travelling up Butley Creek. The Gate House, built later in the 14th Century, was said to be one of the greatest pieces of architecture of its time in England.
Ranulph continued to strengthen his charitable and religious foundations until his death in 1190 whilst accompanying Richard I on a crusade to recapture Jerusalem.
Following Ranulph de Glanville’s death, the Priory continued to be run by priors for a period of 357 years. The mix of priors was vast and the weight of responsibility upon their shoulders great. One prior, who perhaps may have suffered from this great pressure, is said to have given supper to the devil who took on the form of Thomas Cromwell, in an attempt to secure his future.
It was on the 9th March 1235 when Butley Priory received its first royal visit, from Henry III.
Rumor has it that located somewhere within the grounds of the Priory is buried a silver coffin. The coffin contains the body of Michael de la Pole who was the third Earl of Suffolk.
During the time of Prior Augustine Rivet (1509-1528) the Priory became a popular destination for many nobles visiting the area for hunting purposes.
A frequent visitor between 1515 and 1519 was Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. During the summer of 1527 Mary stayed at Butley Priory for two months with her new husband Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. During this particular stay the weather was hot, so she requested her supper to be set out in the shady part of the garden to the east of the Gate House. This sparked a regular tradition of ‘picnic suppers’ at the Priory enjoyed by the royals.
Butley Priory Today
Sadly, the only aspect of the Priory that heralds its existence today is the Gate House, which can be seen from the bend in the road by Abbey Farm. There are also some fragments of masonry which are scattered across some of the village gardens, or have been used within the flint walls. However, there is one other landmark that stands tall within Butley.
St John the Baptist Church, Butley
Tucked away from the centre of the village stands St John the Baptist Church. Built during the 12th Century, the church boasts a Norman nave, a chancel dating to 1300 and a century west tower also built in the 1300’s. A south porch was added to the church during the 1200’s. Sadly, most of the traditional medieval character of the church was lost during a restoration in 1686. However, on the north wall still remain three small Norman windows and a blocked Norman door. In the days of the Priory, this church was the focal point and was one of the key churches in the area.
The Norman characteristics continue in the arch of the doorway with an interesting chevron pattern, with an estimated date of 1150. The font at the front of the church dates back to the 15th century, the base decorated with carvings of four lions, a common motif within most East Anglian fonts. This bowl is then supported by further carved angels with outstretched wings.
Today you can still visit St John the Baptist Church, a footpath leads through the south-west corner of the graveyard. Take a walk and discover the historical past of the area.