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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
A sprawling mass of rubble and masonry – who would have thought it was one of the most important places in medieval East Anglia?
Thetford Priory covers a large site on the edge of this Norfolk town. Its hard to imagine now that this vast expanse covers a place that was once so vibrant and colourful. Surely, the 16th century Reformation has a lot to answer for, as it has denied us the true legacy of the Middle Ages. One of the largest and richest priories in medieval East Anglia, it was founded in 1103-4 by Hugh Bigod, later earl of Norfolk, and a descendant of one of the Norman knights who had come over in the wake of the Conquest. It was affiliated to the French Benedictine establishment at Cluny in France, and shared many of its characteristics with the great house at Castle Acre, also a Cluniac foundation. Bigod chose a level site just outside the walls of fortified Thetford. The town has a long history, being the most important Anglo-Saxon town in Norfolk before the rise of Norwich following the arrival of the Normans.
Both church and priory existed on the site. In the presbytery, the private area for the monks, seven services a day were heard governing the monks day, starting in the early hours of the morning and going on until early evening. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing into the interior. Next to the presbytery, the church was large and elaborate, designed to impress the public who were admitted there. Work began in 1107 and the presbytery was finished by 1114. But the nave, the largest and usually most splendid part of any church, took another 60 years to complete and was said to be extremely elaborate. Rebuilding took place throughout the priorys 400-year history; for example from 1507-10 master mason Thomas Aldrych rebuilt the gable behind the high altar with a great window. The church was designed in the shape of a cross; with a nave, two transepts forming the arms and the presbytery at its head. Like Castle Acre, near Swaffham, it was richly furnished; the Cluniacs did not stint on the decorations unlike more spartan orders such as the Cistercians or the later Franciscans, who renounced private property. The main buildings were arranged around a central cloister encircled by covered walkways. The monks ate together in a ground floor refectory, and slept in first-floor dormitories. There was also a chapter house on the ground floor a meeting chamber where the formal business of the monastery was conducted. Outlying buildings included the obligatory infirmary, barns, stables and the obligatory bakery and brewery needed to serve this self-sufficient community. The prior, befitting his status, had his own rather grand lodge.
This two-storey range had its own chapel, chamber and hall. Henry VII stayed there in the winter of 1498, when the Waits of Norwich (civic musicians) performed for the king and were paid 1s 4d for their performance. Today, the much-altered lodge is the best preserved of the priory buildings. The large 14th century gatehouse also survives.
A century after the priorys foundation, a Thetford craftsman had a vision of the Virgin Mary who told him that he would be cured of a disease if a chapel was built in her honour. Soon a stone Lady Chapel was built next to the presbytery and a statue of the Virgin moved there from the site of the former Saxon cathedral in Thetford. Investigations discovered the statue had a hollow in its head containing the relics of saints. Many believed these could miraculously heal the sick. As a result Thetford became a magnet for pilgrims. Pilgrims the equivalent of modern tourists made generous donations which brought prosperity to the priory, and secured its future. Members of the powerful Howard family, the dukes of Norfolk, were originally buried near her shrine. Their tombs were moved to the parish church in Framlingham following the Dissolution. Henry Fitzroy, illegitimate son of Henry VIII, was also buried at Thetford.
A mob went on the rampage in 1313. For reasons that are largely unexplained they broke into the presbytery and killed several monks at the high altar. The rest took sanctuary in the church next door. Valuable goods were stolen, so these may have been thieves rather than otherwise respectable townspeople at loggerheads with the clerics as happened more than once at Norwich during the same period. More than half a century earlier another deadly encounter took place. A notoriously dissolute prior named Stephen was stabbed during a row with one of his own monks just outside the great west door of the church the site is now marked with a plaque.
What happened at the Reformation? Like most of the larger houses, Thetford surrendered to Henry VIII in 1540 and was closed down. Unlike in the north, where the people rose up to defend the monasteries, little local dissent was reported. The priors house was lived in by private owners for the next 200 years, but by the 1820s it, like the church and priory, was a ruin. Unlike at places like Wymondham, where the abbey went under but the townspeople continued to use the church, the whole site fell victim to decay and cannibalisation for local building projects. When the nearby Abbey House was built during the 19th century, the priory was incorporated in the grounds as a romantic ruin.
The ruins are said to be haunted, and the priory was featured in an episode of the television series Ghosthunters. The Bell Inn at Thetford is also said to be haunted.
The ruins of the 14th century Church of the Canons of Holy Sepulchre, who aided pilgrims to Christs tomb, is nearby.
Thetford Priory, under the care of English Heritage, is near the towns railway station. Entry is free.