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Discover the monks who commanded some of the most economically powerful institutions in East Anglia.
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 in the medieval period. All the religious houses in Thetford were dissolved during the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
In the mid thirteenth century the Prior was a man called Stephen, who came from the Savoy region of France. 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 Stephen about their behaviour but was threatened with expulsion from the Priory. The monk stabbed Stephen in front of the west door of the church and the Prior died of his wounds. The monk, whose name is not recorded, was imprisoned in Norwich Castle.
In the early sixteenth century the Prior was called William Burden or Ixworth, who had been a monk at the Priory since 1504 and became Prior in 1518. 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. Ixworth entertained a number of important figures at Thetford Priory, including the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and Cardinal Wolsey in 1527. A number of payments in the sixteenth century 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.
The Priory had a close relationship with the Dukes of Norfolk, and in 1483 John Howard was created Duke of Norfolk by Richard III. In 1524 the funeral of Thomas Howard, the 7th Duke of Norfolk 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.
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.
The Benedictine nunnery of St George is 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, but in 1397 the nuns petitioned the Abbot if they could receive the provisions as wheat or money instead, as their servants and carts who were sent to collect the produce from Bury St Edmunds every week were frequently murdered or robbed on the roads. The nunnery was dissolved in 1540. The current buildings on the site incorporate several remains of the medieval nunnery.
The Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre was an Augustinian house, found in 1148 by William of Warenne on the south bank of the river, opposite the site of St Mary’s Priory. The priory was endowed with lands by Warenne and by King Stephen, and the possession of a holy relic, the comb of Thomas Becket, ensured that the priory became a focus for medieval pilgrims.
The Canons owned several hundred acres of pasture and arable fields around the site of the priory and a number of houses and other properties within the town. In addition, the canons had the right to use some of the foldcourses around Thetford for a flock of almost 1000 sheep. Foldcourses were a key part of the medieval economy of Breckland – sheep were grazed on pasture during the day and then ‘folded’ or ‘tathed’ on the arable fields during the night.
The ruins of the Priory church are now open to the public, although compared with St Mary’s Priory, little remains on the site. The visible ruins on the site are the walls of the nave of the Priory church.
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 current 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-fourteenth century arch is visible inside.
They demand money from the Mayor in exchange for not burning the town