Join us for an explore at the mighty ruins of Thetford Priory and discover the history of one of the most richest and important Cluniac priories in the country at the time, the priory was also the burial place of the powerful dukes of Norfolk and even the original resting place for Henry Fitzroy, son of Henry VIII.
The story of Thetford Priory starts with a family of poor knights in Normandy, one of whose sons joined the Norman Conquest of England. Roger Bigod may have had humble beginnings, but by the time the Domesday Book was compiled a few years later in 1086, the spoils of war saw him listed as holding six lordships in Essex, 117 in Suffolk and no less than 187 in Norfolk. Founded in 1104, close associate of William the conqueror and Lord of the manor of Thetford.
Bigod based himself at Thetford, and on 1st September 1107 he laid the foundation stone for a new priory just outside the town’s walls. Affiliated with the great abbey at Cluny in France, it would be built on a truly magnificent scale in the rich architectural style typical of the religious order – although Roger wouldn’t live to see its completion. In fact, he died a week after laying the new priory’s foundation stone, resulting in an unseemly tug-of-war over his final resting place between the local monks and the Bishop of Norwich. In the event, the latter had Roger’s body stolen in the middle of the night and buried in the recently-completed cathedral at Norwich.
As for Thetford Priory, it was finished 60 years after Bigod’s death, and would become one of the largest and richest religious foundations in medieval East Anglia. The priory would be one of the last to be decommissioned during the reign of King Henry VIII.
Following a fairly common monastic layout, the buildings were arranged around a central cloister which was surrounded on each side by covered walkways and this gave access to all the main rooms used by the monks, including the church, the dining room, the dormitory and the formal meeting chamber of the community. It was surrounded by an infirmary which had its own cloister and other buildings like the prior’s lodgings and barns and stables, these were all enclosed by a wall with a monumental gatehouse. Much of the cost of these extensive building works was covered by the revenue generated from a lucrative cult built around a miracle-working statue of the Virgin, and the priory became a popular destination for pilgrims. But it wasn’t all miracles and devotion at Thetford, however.
During the 1240s the first Stephen made sure he worked for the good of the house, but the second Stephen managed to turn the community into a house of debauchery. Stephen would often be drunk and boisterous with a fellow monk called Bernard who was an unnamed knight. In 1248 the prior got into an argument with a rather temperamental Welsh monk who had recently arrived from Cluny. Enraged by the prior’s abusive language and upset about being returned to France so swiftly, Stephen pulled out a knife and stabbed the prior to death at the door of the church. The murderer was arrested and handed over to the bishop of Norwich, from whom the king, urged by the queen’s desire for vengeance, claimed him, casting him into the prison of Norwich Castle, where he died.
There was even a serious riot at the priory in 1313 when an unruly mob forced their way into the grounds, assaulted the Prior and his monks and servants, mutilated some of them, and followed others who fled to the church so that they might be in sanctuary, and actually killed several of them by the high altar to then carry away the goods of the priory.
Following several periods of financial instability and despite its considerable income that the priory seemed to have run up equally in substantial debts, the Priory’s fate was sealed when it was threatened with dissolution. The powerful 3rd Duke of Norfolk (a loyal Catholic himself) wrote to Henry VIII proposing its conversion to a college, and pointed out that it would house the tombs of both himself and the king’s son Henry Fitzroy – but it was all to no avail. The last prior and 16 monks at Thetford Priory finally surrendered to the king’s commissioners on 16th February 1540.
The once-magnificent priory was left to the elements and the growing town’s need for building material, and there was soon little left. Although the prior’s lodging would be used as a house for another 200 years, by the 1820s even that didn’t have a roof. Today, the extensive remains comprise the lower walls of the church and cloister, the impressive shell of the prior’s lodging, and the almost-complete gatehouse. It may be a shadow of its former self, but Thetford Priory is still a hugely-impressive sight and a poignant reminder of one of the wildest periods in the history of Thetford.
Not only was this place full of turbulent misdemeanours, the many sightings of a man in a black robe haunts the priory as do ghostly monks seen walking and chanting through the ruins. One dramatic sighting occurred in 1987 when a group of teenagers were exploring the ruins when they believe they saw a monk with a mask on run up some stairs, but weirdly enough when they peered and ran around the corner of the doorway in the priors lodgings, there were no stairs to be found leaving them dazed and confused. Another 5 years later and a group of teens saw a monk, dressed in a hooded black robe, rush pass them, to then vanish. All they remember was the sound of jangly metal keys being thrown around.
It’s said that summer evenings are meant to be the best time for these kind of sightings, but it’s interesting how you interpret hauntings, everyone feels differently and on our visit, we for sure had the sense of eerie coldness around the priors lodgings, a feeling of being unsure but inside the chapel and around the entire site it just had the feeling of history and the walls sharing their stories with you. The priory itself is a much visited landmark just outside the town and many people flock here to use their EPV’s and hope to find the presences of the unknown.
The priory church was a large and elaborate building. Its proportions and detailing are similar to those of Castle Acre Priory, another Cluniac monastery founded in Norfolk in the same period. Between 1507 and 1510 a mason called Thomas Aldrych reconstructed the gable behind the high altar with a great window and before the high altar lay the tombs of many patrons of the priory.
In the early sixteenth century the Prior was called William Burden who had been a monk at the Priory since 1504 and he 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. He 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 this all shows how the money here was spent and how frivolous spending was.
The site is easy to access and wander around and one can see the remains of all areas where monks once lived, dined and worshipped. Thetford Priory is to be found in a large tree-lined park area close to Norwich Road, and free parking inside roads near the Priory is possible, it’s the kind of place history lovers can be fascinated with rich architecture or a visit for the family as a place for the kids to explore and enjoy a picnic either way it’s a great place to visit.
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Till Next Time!