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Tudor Thetford

Life in Thetford changes radically following the Reformation. Wool, leather and tanning boost the fortunes of traders and merchants and the town becomes a royal favourite

The Dissolution affected many aspects of life in Thetford: religious life, economy, trade and the landscape of the town were substantially altered by the loss of the monastic houses which has so characterised the medieval period.

The town was incorporated in the late 16th century, which shaped the way that Thetford was governed for the rest of the post medieval period. In addition, Thetford also enjoyed close connections with nobility and royalty during this period, particularly the visit of Queen Elizabeth I in 1578.

During this period, Thetford, like many towns in East Anglia, had a prominent market and a large number of wealthy merchants and burgesses. The best surviving example of a merchant’s house from this period is the Ancient House on White Hart Street, now a museum.

Thomas Howard

Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, petitioned King Henry VIII to keep Thetford Priory open, however in an act of revenge Thomas Cromwell convinced King Henry to proceed and Thetford Priory became the penultimate Priory in the country to be dissolved in 1540. The site – as well as its substantial landed estate – were granted to Thomas. Many of his ancestors were buried in the Priory church. Howard left the monastic buildings largely intact, although some of the Howard family burials were moved to Framlingham (including the second Duke) as well as the body of Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII, who had died aged 17 in 1536. The Prior’s Lodging was converted into a house that was occupied until the early 18th century. There are still substantial medieval ruins on the site of the Priory, which are open to the public.

In 1546 Howard was imprisoned in the Tower of London by King Henry VIII and was found guilty of treason. Henry’s death in January 1547 saved Howard from being beheaded, although he remained in the Tower throughout King Edward VI’s reign and was released by Queen Mary. On his arrest the Howard estates had been seized, and the estate of Thetford Priory was granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston, thus giving him control over all the former monastic sites in Thetford. On Howard’s release, Fulmerston returned his estate, and Fulmerston’s heirs subsequently sold most of their former monastic lands to the Howard family.

Sir Richard Fulmerston

The nunnery of St George was dissolved in 1537, and the buildings and land was granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston. The buildings were converted in a house, but in the early 17th century a new house was built, known as The Place, and the church was converted into a barn. There are still several extant buildings from the nunnery itself, and also Nunnery Place, the early 17th-century house built on the site, and the arched gateway associated with the farm, which stands isolated on Nunnery Drive on a small area of open ground.

The Priory of the Holy Sepulchre was dissolved in 1536 and was also granted to Fulmerston. In 1538 Fulmerston also gained control of the site of the Augustinian Friary. After the dissolution, the Dominican Friary was granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston. When he died in 1556 he left money to establish a school on the site of the friary for 30 boys, and a hospital or almshouses on Old Bury Road for four people. The almshouses were built in 1610, and have a plaque commemorating Fulmerston. A school house was built on the Blackfriars site during the late 16th century, and all freemen of the Borough of Thetford had the right to have their sons educated there. King James I passed an act of Parliament that protected the existence of the school, which was to be governed by the Corporation. The 16th-century school building incorporates part of the church of the Dominican Friary and is still in use by Thetford Grammar School. Notable former pupils of the school included the architect and courtier Roger North, as well as Thomas Paine.

Mayor of Thetford

In 1527 King Henry VIII sent a Commission to Thetford to investigate the condition of the town, which was described as being in a state of ‘great ruin and decay’. The Commission was led by Sir Thomas Boleyn, the father of Anne Boleyn (son-in-law of the second Duke of Norfolk), who owned estates in Norfolk including Blickling Hall, and also included John Judy, the Mayor of Thetford. The instructions to the Commission mentioned that a number of houses and buildings within the town had been allowed to fall down, and also accused the burgesses of Thetford of taking rents and other dues that belonged to the King. The officers of the Commission – William Wotton, William Elys, William Walwyn and Robert Heneage – called the mayor, burgesses and other residents of Thetford as witnesses and, after much debate, created a series of rules to try to resolve the situation. These included a clearer declaration of the way in which the Mayor of Thetford was to be elected (following disputes between the burgesses and the commoners of the town) and that there should always be one mayor and 10 burgesses.

Until the late 16th century Thetford was not a free borough. In 1574 Queen Elizabeth I granted a Charter of Incorporation to the town, which outlined the rights and responsibilities of the new Corporation to govern Thetford. The new body was to be made up of the Mayor, 10 burgesses and 20 commoners, and their meetings were to be held in the Guildhall.

Royal Connections

In August 1578 Queen Elizabeth I visited Thetford on her Progress. Queen Elizabeth had granted the Charter of Incorporation only four years earlier, and the Corporation was eager to show the Queen Thetford at its best. They ordered that the main streets, houses and shops should be repaired, and the civic regalia was also overhauled with a new scabbard and a new mace. The members of the Corporation purchased new scarlet robes to wear on the Queen’s visit, and a gilt cup to give to Queen Elizabeth as a gift. There was some concern over the cost of these preparations, and two burgesses who complained, Richard Evans and Thomas Alyn, were stripped of their office. On 27 August 1578 Queen Elizabeth arrived in Thetford and held a meeting of the Privy Council at Place House, where she also stayed for the night. Place House was then the residence of Sir Edward Clere, and was on the site of the dissolved nunnery of St George. The house she stayed in has now been replaced by Nunnery Place.

The Bell Inn

A late-15th-century coaching inn with a complex architectural history. The main block of the building along King Street dates to the mid-15th century, and is timber-framed on a brick plinth with a deep first-floor jetty. To the south is a 17th-century wing. Inside there is a former open gallery that gave access from the courtyard to the first floor rooms – this was walled in during the 19th century. One of the first-floor rooms contains a 19th-century wall painting depicting a number of arches.

Ancient House Museum, 21 White Hart Street

A late 15th-century timber-framed merchant’s house and shop with a jettied first floor and an exposed timber frame. To the rear is a 17th-century wing. The house is well-known for the survival of the high-quality carved beams in the interior. In the 15th century the house has a cross-passage plan, with doors opening from the passage into the service rooms and the hall. Most of these features (and others) survive, although with some later alterations. The house was converted into a museum during the 1920s.

1, 3 and 5 Castle Street

These three buildings were originally one late-medieval timber-framed house. Numbers 3 and 5 Castle Street are the earliest part of the building, dating back to the 15th century. Number 1 was built in the 16th century as the service wing of the house, and was connected to 3 and 5 via two service doorways that are now blocked. Numbers 3 and 5 feature a crown-post roof, with octagonal posts, moulded capitals and pierced tracery. The buildings were restored during the 1980s and an Elizabethan coin hoard was discovered behind a wall, as well as a mummified cat underneath the doorstep, which was placed there to ward off evil spirits and witches.

Nunnery of St George

Nunnery Cottages – dating back to the 16th century and part of the original monastic precinct.

Nunnery Gateway – a red brick gateway in broadly Classical style, built in around 1600 for the country house which was built on the site of the nunnery after the dissolution.

Augustinian Friary

Site of the Augustinian Friary founded by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster around 1387 and dissolved in 1538. Believed to have been in the vicinity of Caslte Lane near Ford Place.

The dissolution of the monasteries during the 1530s and 1540s had a profound impact on Thetford, then a small rural town with a high proportion of religious houses. In 1539 the Mayor and burgesses complained to Thomas Cromwell that the town had been partly dependent on the number of pilgrims passing through the town, and that since the monastic houses had ceased to function a number of the town’s inhabitants were in danger of being brought into ‘extreme beggary’. Two people were impacted in particular from the Dissolution: Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, and Sir Richard Fulmerston.

The clerk of the market was a role that became the responsibility of the Mayor after 1574. Traders’ weights and measures were checked regularly, and weights and prices were closely regulated. People were often fined for using false weights, and for buying goods outside the market then reselling them for a higher price on their own stalls.

In 1573 the Castle Mill was referred to as a ‘fulling mill’. Other deeds from this period refer to ‘tenters’ in the area between Castle Street and the river Thet, which were wooden frames on which the cloth was stretched. As well as the production of cloth itself, some people in Thetford were also involved in trading the finished product – drapers and a hatter were recorded in the town during the 16th century. Like many towns in East Anglia, Thetford had a small community of Flemish weavers – the 1586 census lists nine such households.

As well as wool, the importance of sheep in Breckland also meant that leather and tanning became important local industries. Tanning leather required a constant water supply, and in Thetford the tanneries were mostly located on the north bank of the River Thet, including the area around Tanner Street. Brewing was also a key trade in the town, as well as the existence of inns and ale houses. The licensing of alehouses was under the control of the Corporation, and in 1682 there were no less than 51 licenses granted to premises, although there was also a significant amount of unlicensed ale sales.

  • 1499
    King Henry VII is entertained at Thetford Priory on his way to Norwich
  • 1529
    Thetford gets its first MP
  • 1536
    Priory of the Holy Sepulchre dissolved
  • 1536
    Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, is buried in Thetford
  • 1537
    Nunnery of St George dissolved
  • 1540
    Thetford Priory dissolved by King Henry VIII, one of the last in East Anglia
  • 1549
    Census records suggest that the population of Thetford was around 1,500
  • 1555
    Three men are burned at the stake in Thetford, accused of being Protestant heretics
  • 1574
    Queen Elizabeth I granted Charter of Incorporation
  • 1574
    The market becomes the responsibility of the Mayor
  • 1578
    Queen Elizabeth I visits Thetford on her Progress