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17th Century Thetford

From Parliamentarianism to political division

During the Civil War the town supported Parliament, but after the Restoration in 1660 several important and influential figures in the court of Charles II rose to national prominence.

During the Civil War the Corporation of Thetford was staunchly Parliamentarian, and two Mayors of Thetford, Henry Kettle and Thomas Lincoln, as well as the town’s MPs, sat on the Norfolk Committee of the Eastern Association to help organise funding for men and supplies for the Parliamentary army. During the Civil War, Norfolk was relatively quiet in terms of military action, although Thetford’s position meant that it was an important staging post for Parliamentary troops.

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the political situation in Thetford became more unstable than it had been during the Civil War. The Corporation of Thetford during this period was politically divided, the Charter of 1574 was withdrawn and reissued several times, and in 1682 the new charter gave the King the right to appoint the mayor and other members of the Corporation. This resulted in a turbulent period for the Corporation: some of the official records appear to have been deliberately destroyed, but those which survive suggest violent disputes between members..

After a disastrous mayoral election in 1688 the Corporation effectively split into two factions, each with its own mayor and other officers, and each trying to enjoy the benefits of being the Corporation. The situation was partially resolved in 1693 when William and Mary reissued the town’s Charter of 1574, and giving the Whig faction their support, although the Tory faction continued to claim that the Charter was invalid into the early eighteenth century.

Granting Thetford its charter of incorporation (1574) meant that the Corporation was empowered to levy tolls and dues in return for payment of fixed sums to the Crown and the manorial lords. The Corporation had thus secured both financial and jurisdictional independence.

The Corporation appointed its own members with the population playing no part in the selection of its councillors whatsoever. Powerful individuals would often influence proceedings.

During this period Thetford was closely associated with men who had distinguished careers in Parliament and in the government, notably Sir Joseph Williamson and Sir Henry Bennet, but also Sir Allen Apsley and Sir William Harbord.

Sir Joseph Williamson

Sir Joseph Williamson (1633-1701) first represented Thetford in Parliament in 1669, and was re-elected several times until his death in 1701. At the Restoration, Williamson became under-secretary of state and quickly became a key figure in the government. He was also effectively the head of the intelligence services, which were responsible for opening mail and tracking and interrogating potential spies and informers. In 1674 he became Secretary of State, although he lost this position during the Popish Plot in 1679. Despite this fall from royal favour, Williamson continued to serve as MP for Thetford, and donated the Sword of State and the Great Mace to the town, which are still in use as part of the civic regalia.

He was a generous benefactor to the town, and gave money and books to the Grammar School, as well as funding the building of a new courtroom in the Guildhall.

Sir Henry Bennet

Another prominent local politician was Sir Henry Bennet (1618-1685), a Royalist who was appointed as Secretary of State in 1662. This position gave Bennet close access to Charles II, and he became an influential policy-maker and was created Baron Arlington in 1665 and Earl of Arlington and Viscount Thetford in 1672. In 1666 Bennet purchased the Euston estate near Thetford, building a new house and, with the help of John Evelyn, laying out extensive formal gardens at the cutting edge of architectural and landscape design. Charles II visited Euston several times, and Bennet enjoyed a reputation as an excellent host. Bennet promoted the careers of several of his under-secretaries, among them Sir Joseph Williamson, discussed above.

Sir William Harbord

Sir William Harbord (1635-1692) was elected an MP for Thetford in 1679, and again in 1681. Harbord was from a Norfolk family, but his own estate was at Grafton in Northamptonshire. In 1681 the Mayor of Thetford, John Mendham, reported Harbord for allegedly plotting to seize the King, and he gained a reputation for being dangerous to the government. In 1685 James II became King and Harbord fled to the Netherlands where he remained until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when he accompanied William of Orange to England. In 1691 William appointed Harbord ambassador to Turkey, but Harbord died on the journey in 1692.

Sir Allen Apsley

Sir Allen Apsley (1616-1683) had fought with the Royalist forces during the Civil War. In 1661 he was elected as MP for Thetford and became of member of the household of James, the Duke of York and later James II. In 1666 Apsley’s behaviour in the House of Commons was mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary:

‘He did tell me, and so did Sir W. Batten, how Sir Allen Brodericke and Sir Allen Apsly did come drunk the other day into the House, and did both speak for half an hour together, and could not be either laughed, or pulled, or bid to sit down and hold their peace, to the great contempt of the King’s servants and cause; which I am grieved at with all my heart.’ (Wednesday 19 December 1666).

Apsley died in 1683 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The majority of the listed buildings dating from this period are now private houses or offices.

Melford Bridge, Castle Street – built in 1697 and funded by Sir John Wodehouse. Wodehouse arms on plaque.

Harbord’s Almshouses, Magdalen Street – built in 1680.

Remains of late medieval building within the grounds of Nunnery Place, which was much altered in the 17th century but which may be the ruins of the medieval infirmary.

Nunnery Place House, Nuns Bridges Road – built in the early 17th century.

Fulmerstons Almshouses, Old Bury Road – built in 1610 after a bequest in the will of Sir Roger Fulmerston, with original plaques bearing Hebrew biblical inscription.

The Dolphin Inn, Old Market Street – rebuilt in 1694.

2-6A White Hart Street, formerly the White Hart Inn – a 17th century structure although much rebuilt in the 19th century.

The Chantry, 22 White Hart Street – early 17th century with later seventeenth century alterations (some original interior work surviving).

9-11 White Hart Street – a 17th century house that was reroofed and given a new façade during the 18th and 19th centuries.

In century leading up to 1700, Thetford’s economic importance relative to the larger populated towns of Norwich and Bury declined. Surrounded by less agriculturally productive heathland and numerous rabbit warrens, the town struggled to compete. Thetford did however retain its main market town status for South-West Norfolk and major trades did develop, albeit still reliant upon agriculture, which offset the great depression experienced in the 16th century. Sheep and rabbits formed the basis of the extensive leather and tanning industry, which in turn had developed glove and shoe-making. Brewing was the third major industry and brought in its supplies from Norfolk and Suffolk.

Thetford Corporation wanted to encourage people to come to Thetford to buy goods made and sold in the town, but discourage the sale of goods from outside.  In fact they used price controls, tolls and customs to penalise ‘outsiders’, all businesses had to be licensed to trade and even those living in the town had to be freemen of the Borough before they could trade. Only the Corporation could create freemen so they were able to exercise complete control over who could and could not work or trade in the town.

  • 1603
    King James I visits Thetford, staying in the royal hunting lodge (now the King’s House)
  • 1661
    Sir Allen Apsley elected as MP for Thetford
  • 1662
    Sir Henry Bennet appointed as Secretary of State
  • 1669
    Sir Joseph Williamson first represents Thetford in Parliament
  • 1675
    Sir Joseph Williamson MP donates the civic regalia to the Corporation of Thetford
  • 1679
    Sir William Harbord first elected as MP for Thetford
  • 1682
    New Charter gives the King right to appoint the mayor and other members of the Corporation
  • 1693
    William and Mary reissue the town’s Charter