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Tudors and Jacobeans

Thetford became the haunts of Kings, Queens and Dukes. The Tudor and Jacobean period saw the town develop further, thanks to friendships with the Dukes of Norfolk, the Cleres, the Fulmerstons and James I.

Overview

The Dissolution affected many aspects of life in Thetford, religious life, economy and trade and the landscape of the town were substantially altered by the loss of the monastic houses which had 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 Elizabeth I in 1578.

People

The dissolution of the monasteries in 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 dependant 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 benefitted in particular from the Dissolution; Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk and Sir Richard Fulmerston.

Thomas Howard

The Cluniac Priory was dissolved in 1540 and the site, as well as its substantial landed estate were granted to Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, many of whose ancestors were buried in the Priory church. Howard left the monastic buildings largely intact, although some of the Howard family burials were removed from the church, as well as the body of Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, who had died aged 17 in 1536 and was buried in Thetford Priory. Howard was a religious conservative, and many of the former monasteries which came into his possession, which also included the Cluniac Priory of Castle Acre, were never wholly dismantled, and the Prior’s Lodging was converted into a house which was occupied until the early eighteenth 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 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 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 were granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston. The buildings were converted to a house, but in the early seventeenth 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 seventeenth 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, as well as the establishment of 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 site of Blackfriars in the late 16th century, and all freemen of the Borough of Thetford had the right to have their sons educated there. James I passed an act of Parliament which 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 is use by Thetford Grammar School, and former pupils included the architect and courtier Roger North as well as Thomas Paine.

Mayor of Thetford

In 1527 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, 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 which 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 and resolve the situation. These included a clearer declaration of the way in which the Mayor of Thetford was to be elected, after disputes between the burgesses and the commoners of the town, and that there should always be one mayor and ten burgesses.

Until the late 16th century Thetford had a mayor and burgesses, but was not a free borough. In 1574 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, ten burgesses and twenty commoners, and their meetings were to be held in the Guildhall.

Royal Connections

In August 1578 Queen Elizabeth I visited Thetford on her summer tour. 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 were 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 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 27th August 1578 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.

Places

King’s House

The King’s House was originally a late medieval house, which was rebuilt during the reign of Elizabeth I and used as a hunting lodge by James I who later granted it to Sir Philip Wodehouse. The Wodehouse family were a prominent local landowning family, whose main seat was at Kimberley near Wymondham. The Wodehouse arms were placed over the gate at the King’s House and were later incorporated into the wall of the building when it was rebuilt in the 18th century. A late 18th century sketch of the King’s House shows a multi-gabled building with walled courts and an ornate gateway, which were removed when the house was rebuilt in the 18th century.

Thetford Priory

Site of Cluniac Priory – substantial remains of priory buildings including the impressive 14th century gatehouse.

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.

Nunnery of St George

Site of St George’s Nunnery.

Nunnery Chapel – remains of the nunnery church dating back to the 12th century.

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.

Nunnery Place – an early 17th century house built within the precinct of the nunnery.

Chapter House – incorporating some 12th century remains of the nunnery chapter house, but now 19th century and converted into offices standing immediately south of Abbey barns.

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. The garden walls around Nunnery Cottages incorporate lots of medieval masonry from the ruins of the nunnery.

Dominican Friary/Thetford Grammar School

Site of Dominican Friary (Blackfriars), now the Grammar School.

Thetford Grammar School library – built in 1575 and rebuilt in the late 19th century.

Canons of the Holy Sepelchre

Site of the Priory of the Holy Seplchre with ruins of nave and barn.

Augustinian Friary

Site of the Augustinian Friary.

Listed Buildings

Nunnery Cottages – all late 16th century but substantially remodelled in 1857.

Nunnery Place House – early 17th century with later alterations.

Fulmerston’s Almhouses, Old Bury Road – range of almshouses dating to 1610, funding by Sir Richard Fulmerston with a plaque commemorating their construction.

Timeline

  • 1529 - Thetford got its first MP

  • 1536 - Priory of the Holy Sepulchre dissolved

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

  • 1537 - Nunnery of St George dissolved

  • 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 heretics

  • 1574 - Queen Elizabeth granted Charter of Incorporation

  • 1578 - Queen Elizabeth I visited Thetford on her summer tour

  • 1603 - King James I visits Thetford, staying in the royal hunting lodge (now King’s House)

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