In the beginning...

… the monks arrive in Birkenhead

Birkenhead Priory was founded as a Benedictine monastery over 850 years ago. Here, a small community of monks prayed, farmed, gave hospitality to travellers and operated a ferry across the Mersey to Liverpool. In 1536, after nearly four hundred years, the Priory was closed by King Henry VIII, the monks dispersed and most of the Priory buildings fell into ruin.

Site

A headland of birch trees

The first monks came to Birkenhead in the middle years of the 12th century, when a Priory dedicated to St James the Great was built here. The site chosen was a wooded headland projecting into the Mersey and lying between the two inlets of Wallasey and Tranmere Pools. There was no settlement nearby. Birkenhead was just a tiny hamlet, almost completely surrounded by water.

Foundation

For the salvation of my soul

No records survive for the founding of the Priory, which took place early in the reign of King Henry II (1154 – 89). Its benefactor was Baron Hamon de Massey of Dunham, whose family had been granted estates in Cheshire and parts of Wirral after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Religion was central to society at this time. Many barons used their new wealth to endow religious houses, believing this would help their chances of going to heaven. They left money for the monks to pray for their souls and the souls of their descendants.

Black Monks

Birkenhead Priory was a Benedictine monastery. The monks were known as Black Monks because of the colour of their habits. The only other Benedictine house in Cheshire was the great Abbey of St Werburgh in Chester. Although there was no connection between the two establishments, the first group of Priory monks may have come from Chester.

The Priory was neither large nor wealthy. There were never more than 16 monks there at any one time. It held lands in a number of Wirral townships and also lands in Lancashire and Cheshire.