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The Mercantile Age

In the C16th the town was a successful mercantile centre, reflected in the surviving merchant houses and associations with major figures such as John of Gaunt


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.

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 the town enjoyed legal privileges which 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, along with Norwich, which gave it an important role in the jurisdiction of the county.


The manor of Thetford was held by the Duchy of Lancaster and administered by a provost or bailiff. In the fourteenth century the manor was therefore held by John of Gaunt, whose son became Henry IV. Thetford therefore became a royal manor until the mid-sixteenth century. The manor house was on the site of the King’s House, and its ground probably extended up to Earls Lane. 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.


The Bell Hotel

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

Ancient House Museum, 21 White Hart Street

A late fifteenth-century timber framed merchant’s house with a jettied first floor and an exposed timber frame. To the rear is a seventeenth-century wing. The house is well-known for the survival of high-quality carved beams in the interior. In the fifteenth 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 in 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 to the fifteenth century. Number 1 was built in the sixteenth century as the service wing of the house, which was connected to 3 and 5 with two service doorways that are now blocked. A sixteenth-century timber framed house with a deep jetty on the first floor, 3 and 5 contain a crown-post roof, with octagonal posts, moulded capitals and pierced tracery. The buildings were restored in 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.

Thetford’s Trades

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 seems to have never 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 stalls. The market was administered by the clerk of the market, a role which became the responsibility of the Mayor after 1574. The weights and measures of the traders were checked regularly to make sure that they were selling the correct weights to their customers, and weights and prices were closely regulated. People were often fined for using false weights, and for buying goods outside the market and then reselling them for a higher price on their own stalls.

There is evidence of the cloth industry in Thetford, including a deed of 1347 which mentions Richard de Fuller. Fulling was a stage in the processing of unfinished cloth. 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 with the finished product and a number of drapers and a hatter were recorded in the town in the sixteenth century. Like many towns in East Anglia, Thetford had a small community of Flemish weavers, and the census of 1586 lists nine 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 that 51 licenses granted to premises, although there was also a significant amount of unlicensed sale of ale.


  • 1373 - John of Gaunt established the Mayor as most important officer in Thetford

  • 1499 - Henry VII is entertained at Thetford Priory on his way to Norwich

  • 1536 - Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, is buried in Thetford

  • 1540 - Thetford Priory dissolved by Henry VIII, one of the last in East Anglia

  • 1549 - Census records suggest that the population of Thetford was about 1500

  • 1555 - Three men are burned at the stake in Thetford, accused of being Protestant

  • 1574 - Market becomes the responsibility of the Mayor

  • 1574 - Queen Elizabeth granted Charter of Incorporation

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