Visit the extensive remains of Thetford Priory one of the most important East Anglian monasteries, the Cluniac Priory of Our Lady of Thetford and the burial place of the earls and dukes of Norfolk for 400 years. Founded in the early 12th century, it owed much of its prosperity to a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary, whose statue here was discovered to conceal relics of saints, and became a magnet for pilgrims.
Founded in 1104 by Roger Bigod, the priory of St Mary became the largest and most important religious house in Thetford. Bigod was a close friend of William the Conqueror and may have founded the Priory instead of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 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. He had wanted to be buried in the priory at Thetford, but the bishop made sure that his body was taken to Norwich Cathedral instead.
In the thirteenth century a statue of the Virgin Mary, which had stood in St Mary’s Church, the Late Saxon cathedral was found 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 thirteenth century the Priory held land in sixty different parishes across East Anglia. In the early sixteenth century the monks managed a flock of over 7000 sheep on the foldcourses around Thetford. The estate also included a number of rabbit warrens, which were an important part of the economy of medieval Breckland, with the rabbits 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 to the early fifteenth century.
The wealthy patrons meant that the Priory built up a very large landed estate, and in the sixteenth century it was one of the wealthiest religious houses in England, although at its largest the community probably numbered around 24 monks.
Surviving remains include the lower walls of the church and cloister, along with the impressive shell of the priors’ lodging and, reached by a pathway from the main site, an almost complete 14th century gatehouse.