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Medieval Thetford

Roger Bigod founds the priory of St Mary, which becomes one of the wealthiest religious houses in England

The landscape and history of Thetford during the medieval period was dominated by the religious houses and churches founded within the town. Some of these foundations had their roots in the pre-Conquest period, but rose to greater prominence during the medieval period. With the encouragement of Thomas Cromwell all the religious houses in Thetford were dissolved during the Reformation in the 16th century.

Little is known of how Thetford was governed in the late medieval period, although the town must have been granted a royal charter in the early medieval times as it enjoyed legal privileges that could only be granted by such a charter, such as an exemption from tolls and customs. Thetford was also the location of the Assize Court (alongside Norwich), which gave it an important role in the jurisdiction of the county.

Prior Stephen

In the mid-13th century Prior Stephen came from the Savoy region of France to St Mary’s Priory. In 1248 Stephen invited his two brothers to Thetford, where they drank and reputedly ignored the religious aspects of life within the Priory. One monk attempted to remonstrate with Prior Stephen about their behaviour but was threatened with expulsion from the Priory. The monk stabbed the Prior in front of the west door of the church and he died of his wounds. The monk was imprisoned in Norwich Castle.

John of Gaunt

The manor of Thetford was held by the Duchy of Lancaster, and administered by a provost or bailiff. During the 14th century the manor was held by John of Gaunt, whose son became Henry IV. Thetford therefore became a royal manor until the mid-16th century. The manor house was on the site of the King’s House, and its ground probably extended up to Earls Street. John of Gaunt and the subsequent royal holders of the manor were not normally in residence in Thetford, and the manor house was probably lived in by the manorial steward, who administered the property in their absence.

In 1373 John of Gaunt, the lord of the Manor and Duke of Lancaster, reorganised the administration of the town, so that the Mayor became the most important officer, with the bailiff and the coroner reporting to him. The town appears to have been independent of the counties of both Norfolk and Suffolk, with its own courts, coroner and other legal officials. The town did not achieve full autonomy until 1574, when Elizabeth I granted the Charter of Incorporation, and during the medieval period taxes were collected by the Crown’s officers, who were deeply unpopular within the town.

William Burden or Ixworth

In 1518 William Burden or Ixworth became Prior, having been a monk at the Priory since 1504 The Priory records show that he travelled quite often, visiting the Duke of Norfolk and the Bishop of Norwich. He also refurbished the Prior’s Lodgings, spending a considerable sum of money on the purchase of wall hangings, cushions, curtains, feather beds and gold and silver plate, which suggests a very high level of domestic comfort. The Prior entertained important figures at Thetford Priory, Cardinal Wolsey in 1527. During the 16th century, payments were made to minstrels and other travelling musicians and actors to entertain the monks and other members of the community, and the records show that on six occasions during the 1520s the monks were entertained by the King’s juggler or jester.

Dukes of Norfolk

In 1483 John Howard was created Duke of Norfolk by Richard III. The Priory had a close relationship with successive Dukes. The Priory became the burial site of Henry Fitzroy (illegitimate son of Henry VIII) after his father-in-law Thomas Howard second Duke of Norfolk organised his funeral. In 1524 the funeral of Thomas Howard, took place in the Priory. The funeral procession started at Framlingham Castle, in Suffolk, and 900 mourners accompanied the Duke’s body on its journey to Thetford. At the Priory, his body was placed on a metal hearse hung with heraldic banners, other hangings and 700 candles. A knight in full armour, and holding the Duke’s battle axe downwards, rode down the nave of the church on horseback, and the officers of the Duke’s household broke their staves of offices and threw them into the open grave. In 1540 the tombs of Henry Fitzroy and the Dukes of Norfolk had their tombs dismantled and eventually moved to Framlingham Suffolk

Thetford Priory

Founded in 1104 by Roger Bigod, the Priory of St Mary became the largest and most important religious house in Thetford. The house was a Cluniac monastery, and the first monks came from Lewes in Sussex. The original site of the Priory was south of the river at St Mary’s Church (the former cathedral), but by 1107 the growing size of the community made a move to its current site north of the river. Roger Bigod laid the foundation stone on the new site himself, but died a week later. The Priory is important as one of only three Cluniac foundations in Norfolk, and the scale and layout of the site is very similar to the contemporary priory at Castle Acre. In the 13th century a statue of the Virgin Mary that had stood in St Mary’s Church (the Late Saxon cathedral) was believed to have miraculous properties. The Priory therefore became a centre of pilgrimage during the medieval period. The income that this generated allowed the monks to construct a large new Lady Chapel and to extend the size of the choir in the church.

By the end of the 13th century the Priory held land in 60 different parishes across East Anglia. In the early 16th century the monks managed a flock of more than 7,000 sheep on the foldcourses around Thetford. The estate also included rabbit warrens, which were an important part of the economy of medieval Breckland – rabbits were bred for their meat and fur. Each warren was overseen by a warrener, who lived in a house or lodge. One of the best surviving examples is Thetford Warren Lodge – built of flint and dating from the early 15th century.

The wealthy patrons meant that the Priory built up a very large landed estate, and during the 16th century it was one of the wealthiest religious houses in England, although at its largest the community probably numbered around 24 monks. The substantial remains of St Mary’s Priory, like Castle Acre, is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public.

Sites:

Cluniac Priory – substantial remains of priory buildings including the impressive 14th-century gatehouse (accessible through separate entrance gate from the priory).

Abbey Farm Cottages – late 13th-century timber framed outbuildings of the priory, later converted into farm buildings.
Abbey Farm outbuilding – a mid-15th-century outbuilding of the priory, which is partly timber framed and now clad in 19th-century flint rubble walling.
These have now been developed into a modern residential housing estate known as Abbey Barns.

Nunnery of St George

The Benedictine nunnery of St George was one of the oldest of Thetford’s religious houses. It was originally a monastery, founded in 1016 during the reign of Cnut as a daughter house of the monastery at Bury St Edmunds. In 1160 Hugh, the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds, granted the monastery to a group of nuns from Lyng, in Norfolk, and St George’s was converted into a nunnery. The nuns received bread, ale and other produce from the Abbey in Bury every week. The nunnery was dissolved in 1540. The current buildings on the site incorporate several remains of the medieval nunnery.

Significant sites

Nunnery Chapel – remains of the nunnery church dating back to the 12th century.
The garden walls around Nunnery Cottages incorporate lots of medieval masonry from the ruins of the nunnery.

These are now are home to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) headquarters, the grounds are accessible to the public.

Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre

The Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre was an Augustinian house, found in 1148 by William de Warenne on the south bank of the river, opposite the site of St Mary’s Priory. The Canons were all ordained priests and the order derived from one founded in Jerusalem that provided aid to pilgrims visiting the supposed site of Christ’s burial. Before William de Warenne departed on crusade he endowed the Priory with the church and an area of adjoining land together with all the lands, churches tithes and manorial rights that he held south of the river in Thetford. The possession of a holy relic – the comb of Thomas Becket – ensured that the priory became a focus for medieval pilgrims.

The visible ruins of the priory Church are open to the public although little remains.

Blackfriars

The Dominican Priory of Blackfriars was founded in 1335 by Henry, Duke of Lancaster. It was located on the site of the church of St Mary, the former cathedral which was also briefly the site of St Mary’s Priory. In 1370 the friars bought all the properties between the priory and Bridge Street, and were granted permission by the King to demolish the houses and expand the priory. Blackfriars was located on the site of Thetford Grammar School. Two brick and flint walls of the church are still standing on the site, with two blocked archways. Within the school library (itself built in 1575) the crossing tower of the medieval church is incorporated into the fabric of the current building, and a mid-14th-century arch is visible inside.

The Mayor and burgesses of Thetford had the right to hold markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and four religious fairs throughout the year. The medieval market place was located between the Castle and the River Thet, on the site of Market Street and Bailey End. The market place was in position by 1290, and never seems to have had many buildings around it.

By the late 14th century the market place was clearly subdivided into separate sections with permanent stalls (much like the modern market in Norwich), including a fish market, a cheese market, a timber market, a meat market, a corn market, and other goods and produce including hay and leather. The stalls were arranged in parallel rows with narrow lanes in between. The market was administered by the clerk of the market.

There is evidence of the cloth industry in Thetford, including a deed of 1347 that mentions Richard de Fuller. Fulling was a stage in the processing of unfinished cloth.

  • 1104
    Roger Bigod founds the Priory of St Mary
  • 1148
    Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre founded
  • 1160
    Benedictine nunnery of St George founded
  • 1248
    Murder of the Prior Stephen
  • 1272
    The earliest reference to a Mayor of Thetford – John le Forester
  • 1313
    A rampaging mob kills several monks in Thetford Priory
  • 1335
    Dominican Priory of Blackfriars founded
  • 1370
    Expansion of the Dominican Priory of Blackfriars
  • 1373
    John of Gaunt established the Mayor as most important officer in Thetford
  • 1381
    Thetford is occupied by a band of rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt. They demand money from the Mayor in exchange for not burning the town
  • 1524
    Funeral of Thomas Howard, the second Duke of Norfolk, takes place at Thetford Priory
  • 1527
    Cardinal Wolsey entertained by William Burden at Thetford Priory
  • 1540
    Thetford Priory and Benedictine nunnery of St George dissolved