Birkenhead Priory, Birkenhead, Cheshire
- Site Location
- Birkenhead Priory
- National Grid Reference
- SJ 328 886
Lichfield to 1075
Chester to c.1086
Coventry and Lichfield to 1541
now: Chester from 1541
now (or name of monument): none
- Type of building/monument
- Former Benedictine Priory
II General Description
The priory was originally isolated on a headland overlooking the Mersey, but is now entirely hemmed in by what remains of the shipyard graving docks and by a recently built industrial estate. A promenade has been built along the waterside, offering splendid views of Liverpool across the river, but no part of the priory is visible from this.
The original foundation is attributed to Hamo de Masci, 3rd Baron of Dunham Massey c.1150, but Pevsner prefers a slightly later 12thc. date. What remains is the cloister, without its arcades, and some of the surrounding monastic buildings. It lay to the N of the church, and of this only fragments of the N walls survive. To the E of the cloister square stands the chapter house, of red sandstone, the only part of the original foundation to survive. It is a simple rectangular building of two rib-vaulted bays, preserving only one of its original side windows - a completely plain splayed opening in the S wall of the E bay. The W front has the usual arrangement of a doorway flanked by windows, but these are completely plain and are not described in this report. A second storey was added to it in the 14thc., now called the Scriptorium, although Pevsner doubts whether that was its function. In the N range stands the 14thc. vaulted undercroft of the refectory, and to the W the 13th-14thc. buildings of the guest hall and prior's lodging.
The priory was bought by public subscription in 1896, and Birkenhead Borough Council took responsibility for it. It was restored 1896-98, and the chapter house restored from 1913-19, when it was dedicated as a chapel. Romanesque sculpture is found in the vault supports of the chapter house. This picture is confused by the presence on the same site of the remains of St Mary's church. The church, by Thomas Rickman (1819-21) was built as part of F. R. Price's plan to develop the town as a resort. It was enlarged by the construction of transepts in 1832-35, but closed in 1971 and all except the tower demolished four years later. This remains as a viewpoint.
IV Interior Features
4. Vaulting/Roof supports
(i) Chapter House
The chapter house vault is of two quadripartite bays, with roll profile diagonal ribs and a broad unmoulded transverse rib separating the bays. At the angles of the chapter house the diagonal ribs are carried on corbels with plain chamfered imposts. The best-preserved corbels are at the W end, where they are of simple cushion form. The transverse rib is carried on attached en-delit half-shafts, with nook-shafts to either side to take the central terminations of the diagonal ribs. Here the capitals are multi-scalloped for the transverse rib and double-scalloped for the diagonals, all with simple conical wedges between the scallops. Imposts are plain and chamfered, neckings simple rolls, and bases attic. Broad vertical grooves have been cut in the capitals, bases and plinths of the transverse arch supports on either side, presumably to accommodate a screen.
No document records the foundation, and the generally accepted ascription to Hamo de Masci comes from Sir Peter Leycester (1673), generally reliable and with access to documents in the hands of the Cheshire gentry. His writings are most easily accessed via Ormerod.
The priory was dissolved in 1536. The site was restored from 1898-1919 and the Chapter House was dedicated as a chapel in 1919. The site was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1979.
Leycester was cautious about the date of foundation, but suggested the reign of Henry II (1154-89). On the basis of the style of the chapter house, Stewart-Brown preferred the 1st half of that reign, which fits well enough with Pevsner's opinion.
- P.Leycester, Historical Antiquities. 1673.
- G. Ormerod, History of Cheshire. 3 vols 1816-19. (ed. T. Helsby, 1882)
- N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, The Buildings of England. Cheshire. Harmondsworth 1971 (repr. 1978), 79-81.
- R. Richards, Old Cheshire Churches. London 1947, 54-60.
- R. Stewart-Brown, Birkenhead Priory and the Mersey Ferry (and A Chapter on the Monastic Buildings by H. Brakspear). Liverpool 1925.