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Thetford Cluniac priory

A Scheduled Monument in Thetford, Norfolk

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Latitude: 52.4162 / 52°24'58"N

Longitude: 0.7413 / 0°44'28"E

OS Eastings: 586523.06012

OS Northings: 283338.56817

OS Grid: TL865833

Mapcode National: GBR RD7.G75

Mapcode Global: VHKCC.SJRK

Entry Name: Thetford Cluniac priory

Scheduled Date: 13 May 1948

Last Amended: 10 June 1998

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1017669

English Heritage Legacy ID: 21420

County: Norfolk

Civil Parish: Thetford

Built-Up Area: Thetford

Traditional County: Norfolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Norfolk

Church of England Parish: Thetford St Cuthbert

Church of England Diocese: Norwich


Thetford Cluniac priory is situated on the west side of the medieval town, on
ground adjacent to the Little Ouse River which flows along the southern
boundary of the monastic precinct. The monument includes the central part of
the precinct containing the standing and buried remains of the monastic church
and conventual buildings and the remains of water control features to the
south and west of these.

The priory, dedicated to St Mary, was established in 1104 by Roger Bigod and
colonised by a prior and 12 monks from Lewes priory (the first Cluniac
monastery to be established in England). The original foundation was to the
south of the river, within the Saxon town and centred on the former cathedral
church which had been abandoned when the see was moved to Norwich. This urban
site soon proved to be too confined and building was begun on the present site
in 1107, the prior and convent moving to it in 1114. The priory was among the
larger and wealthier religious foundations in Norfolk, with a recorded
community numbering up to 24 monks, and an annual income assessed in 1291 at
123 pounds, 12 shillings and 5 pence. In 1535 the clear annual value was put
at 312 pounds, 14 shillings and 4 pence. Patronage of the priory reverted to
the crown following the death of Roger Bigod in 1307 and was granted by Edward
II to his half brother de Brotherton, later passing by marriage to the
Mowbrays and then the Howards, several of whom were buried in the priory
church. Following the surrender of the priory in 1540, the site was acquired
by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

The principal entry to the monastic precinct was on the north side through a
gatehouse which is now in the grounds of Abbey House. To the east and south
west of the gatehouse are standing and buried remains of other buildings of
monastic date. The remains of the church and associated conventual buildings
which form the core of the monastic complex lie 113m to the south east of
the gatehouse and include the ruins of a large building known as the Prior's
Lodging immediately to the west of the church. This building shows evidence of
successive alterations following the dissolution of the monastery in the 16th
century, and to the south of it there are remains of a formal garden. In the
low-lying meadow on the northern side of the river and to the south and south
west of the monastic buildings there are also remains of several water
management features believed to be of monastic origin.

The remains of the church, the priory and its claustral buildings and adjacent
Prior's Lodging, together with the gatehouse, Abbey Farm Cottage and its
adjacent barn are all Listed Grade I and in the care of the Secretary of

The gatehouse is dated to the 14th century and is built chiefly of mortared
flint rubble, faced externally with knapped flint and with stone dressings.
The walls still stand to their original height of three storeys and display
various original features, although the roof and floors no longer survive. In
the north and south walls are the wide openings for the carriageway,
surmounted by segmental arches, and on the internal faces of the walls
immediately above these can be seen sockets for the joists of the floor above.
The level of the floor of the third storey is marked by offsets in the walls.
The first and second floor chambers were lit by square headed windows of three
lights and two lights respectively, centred over the entrance arches, and on
the first floor there are also deeply splayed window slots in the east and
west walls, adjacent to the northern angles. Other features include a large,
brick-backed fireplace in the west wall of the first floor chamber and
another, smaller fireplace in the south wall of the chamber above. The walls
of the second floor chamber also display evidence of internal alteration,
including areas of patching with chalk blocks. Polygonal turrets at the south
eastern and south western angles of the gatehouse contain the remains of a
stair and a garderobe (privy).

In the east wall of the gatehouse at ground floor level is the blocked arch of
a doorway to an adjoining building which extended westwards along the northern
precinct boundary and is thought to have been an almonry. This remained
standing into the early 19th century and is depicted in an 18th century
engraving. The stone weathering of its steeply pitched roof is still visible
on the external face of the gatehouse wall and, although the building has been
demolished, remains of the foundations will survive below the ground surface
and are included in the scheduling.

Adjoining the buttress at the north west angle of the gatehouse is the stub
of the medieval precinct wall which ran westwards from the entry. The line of
the wall is continued for a distance of about 10m by a rebuild which includes
random reused fragments of ashlar, this is believed to stand on medieval
foundations and is also included in the scheduling.

Abbey Farm Cottage and an adjacent barn, situated within the monastic precinct
to the south west of the gatehouse, incorporate the remains of two timber
framed buildings of medieval date, one identified as a 13th century aisled
hall, perhaps for the reception and accommodation of visitors, and the other
as an early 15th century building of two storeys, jettied on the south face
and with a 16th century, post-monastic extension to the east. Both buildings
are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is
included. Limited excavations have confirmed that in the area to the south of
these buildings, evidence survives beneath the ground surface for various
activities during the monastic period, including the casting of a bell.

The church and associated conventual buildings were built on a series of
shallow artificial terraces in the south facing slope above the river. Little
of the masonry now stands to a height of more than 2m, but the layout of the
original early- to mid-12th century complex, with evidence for later additions
and modifications, is clearly displayed in the ruined flint walls and exposed
foundations, which also retain remnants of stone dressing and architectural
detail. The walls of some of the additions are distinguished by the inclusion
of reused ashlar and architectural fragments and, in the later parts, by the
occasional use of brick.

The church was built originally on a plan similar to that used for the church
of the Cluniac monastery at Castle Acre and is cruciform, with an aisled nave
of eight bays and transepts to north and south of a central crossing. In the
nave, all that remains visible above ground are footings of the north wall and
west front, the foundations of the piers which supported twin towers at the
west end, and the stumps of some of the piers of the arcades between the nave
and the aisles. The walls of the transepts and east end survive to a greater
height. The original east end was symmetrical in plan, with apsidal chapels
off the transepts and an apsidal presbytery flanked by shorter apsidal aisles.
The buried foundations of the presbytery apse are marked out in concrete on
the ground surface. The lower walls of the apsidal transept chapels survive
and the outline of blind arcading can still be seen on their internal faces
where the stone has been removed from the flint rubble matrix. In the south
wall of the south transept is the round headed opening of a doorway into a
sacristy (repository for vestments and church vessels), and east of this is an
adjacent opening onto the base of a newel (spiral) stair which led up to the
dorter (monks' dormitory). Other original details preserved in the choir and
presbytery include parts of the ashlar facing at the bases of the piers and
walls and, in the tallest surviving fragment of the south wall, parts of the
supporting shafts, springing and roll moulding of the arch of the original
eastern apse, the springing of the eastern arch of the arcade which divided
the presbytery from the aisle to the south, and traces of arcading at
triforium and clerestory levels. At the crossing are the bases of the four
great piers which supported a central tower, and between the western pair of
these are the footings of the screen which separated the monks' choir from the

On the north side of the presbytery are the remains of a large, rectangular
Lady chapel, begun in the first half of the 13th century and replacing the
north presbytery aisle, which was demolished. This chapel housed a miraculous
image of the Virgin which attracted many pilgrims, and the additional wealth
this brought to the priory probably financed the building of a new east end to
the presbytery which, as outlined by the surviving wall footings, is square
ended and approximately 9m longer than the original. The east wall of the
south presbytery aisle, containing a large window opening with pointed arch,
was also built at this time to replace the original apse. A small chapel in
the external angle between the north transept and the wall of the nave aisle
is a later addition, dated to the late 15th century and thought to have been
built to house the tomb of the first Howard Duke of Norfolk, killed in 1485 at
the battle of Bosworth. A door opening inserted in the north wall of the north
transept leads into a second sacristy of similar date, represented by exposed
wall foundations. This is rectangular in plan, divided by a cross wall in
which are the remains of a brick oven, probably for the baking of wafers for
the mass.

The principal conventual buildings, which are also primarily of 11th and early
12th century date, with later additions and alterations, are ranged around
three sides of a quadrangular cloister adjoining the south side of the nave of
the church. The lower part of the east range, which was originally of two
storeys, with the dorter on the upper floor, extends southwards from the south
transept and adjoining sacristy. Immediately to the south of the sacristy are
the remains of the chapter house where the monks met to discuss the business
of the priory. This is rectangular in plan, with a narrow bench running
around the base of the walls and a door opening from the cloister alley to the
west. The east wall, which retains some plaster on the internal face, is a
14th century insertion replacing the original apsidal east end, the
foundations of which are outlined in concrete in the ground surface beyond. To
the south of the chapter house are the remains of the day stairs from the
cloister to the dorter, and next to these, a slype or through passage leading
to an infirmary complex beyond. Against the north and south walls of this
passage can be seen the bases of columns to support a vault. In the south
wall there is also a door opening into an undercroft, which was vaulted in
seven bays to either side of a central arcade. The rubble core of several of
the piers of the arcade survive, and between them are the footings of various
cross walls inserted at later dates and subdividing the area into smaller
apartments which include a parlour and a warming house containing the remains
of a fireplace set into the east wall.

The reredorter (latrine block), with a stone-lined drain behind it, extends
east-west across the southern end of the east range, and although only the
footings of the walls can be seen, the bases of some of the latrine chutes,
lined with ashlar and issuing into the drain, survive in the rear wall.

The earliest and most important component of the infirmary complex adjacent to
the east range is the infirmary hall and chapel. This is a long, rectangular
building, aligned west-east and dated to the beginning of the 13th century.
Adjoining it on the south side are three further building ranges constructed
in the 15th century around a small cloister surfaced with flint cobbles and
with a central well. None of the walls stands to more than 1m in height, but
surviving internal features include part of a 14th century floor in the
chapel, paved with tiles of a type manufactured at Bawsey in north west
Norfolk, and fireplaces in the walls of the west and south claustral ranges.
The hall and the range on the west side of the infirmary cloister are
connected to the main claustral complex by a passage, the south wall of which
includes traces of an elaborately moulded arcade on its inner face and is
dated to the later 15th century.

Most of the south range is occupied by the refectory, with a dais for the high
table at the east end and low platforms retained by masonry kerbs along the
north and south walls. These walls still stand in places to a height of up to
8m and include openings for large windows. A slight projection in the external
face of the south wall, towards the eastern end, marks the site of the pulpit
from which readings were given during meals, and at the western end of the
north wall is the opening and sill of the entry from the cloister, beside
which are traces of the laver (ceremonial washing place) facing onto the
cloister alley. In the west wall is the opening of a doorway to what was
originally the buttery, later converted into a kitchen and containing the
remains of an inserted hearth and two double ovens dated to the early 15th and
early 16th century respectively. Fragmentary foundations of an earlier,
detached kitchen to the south of this are exposed alongside the wall footings
of a range of offices which were also added in the early 16th century.

The west range, completed around the end of the 12th century, was originally
of two storeys. The upper floor, which probably contained apartments for the
prior and his guests according to the usual monastic custom, does not survive,
but the ground plan of the lower floor is outlined by the exposed wall
footings which in places retain evidence for vaulting and other architectural
features of various dates. At the north end, abutting the south west angle of
the church, is the outer parlour which was originally the entry to the
cloister from the outer courts of the monastery and used for meetings between
the monks and lay visitors. This was altered in the 14th century by the
addition of a room to the west, enclosing the outer doorway, and by the
insertion of a new vault and an internal stair, the remains of which can be
seen against the south wall. At the west end of the south wall is a doorway
with steps down to an undercroft which occupies the remainder of the range.
This undercroft, which would have been used chiefly for storage, is divided
into two main sections, respectively of three and four bays to either side of
a central arcade and both subdivided by later inserted cross walls. At the
southern end, adjoining the west end of the south range, is a smaller section
of one bay. Surviving features include parts of the piers which supported the
central arcade in the largest, central section, one with its original capital,
and the lower part of a window in the west wall of the north bay.

The building known as the Prior's Lodging is a long, narrow, two-storeyed
range, approximately 6m in width, extending WNW from the northern end of the
west claustral range and it is, after the gatehouse, the best preserved
masonry building associated with the monastery. It remained in use into the
18th century, and the walls, which stand in part almost to roof height,
display evidence of major alterations in the post-monastic period. The
earliest visible part is an early 13th century undercroft at the western end,
approximately 50m from the west end of the monastic church and sunken about
0.8m below the modern ground surface. Limited excavations carried out between
1971 and 1974 have shown that this represents the remains of the northern half
of a detached, rectangular building, probably of two storeys, measuring about
11m square and divided by an east-west spine wall. The walls, which are
approximately 0.9m thick and stand in places to just above ground level, are
constructed of mortared flint and display original features which include the
corbels and springing of a ribbed vault, as well as the sills and lower jambs
of internally splayed windows in the north and east and south walls. The
original west wall is obscured behind an end wall inserted at a later date.
The brick floor is of post-medieval date, as are brick steps inserted in the
south wall, and the window in the east wall has been modified by the insertion
of a later fireplace in the eastern face. The southern half of the building no
longer stands, although buried foundations are known to survive. Buried
foundations of walls and floors of 13th, 14th and possibly 15th century date
have also been located below the standing walls to the east.

The present appearance of the Prior's Lodging above ground is that of a high
status, early post-medieval secular dwelling, but the original structure has
been dated to the later 15th or early 16th century. The walls, which show
evidence of extensive patching and refacing, are constructed chiefly of clunch
(local chalk) and flint, incorporating some brick, reused ashlar and fragments
of architectural mouldings, and are clearly distinguishable from the masonry
of the earlier undercroft. Several one- and two-light windows of late medieval
type, one partly removed by a later alteration, are set into the external
walls at ground and first floor level, and an internal wall includes arched
doorways. In the south wall of the building, opposite the arch of the
gatehouse to the north, is a wide archway which is a post-monastic insertion
constructed of reused 12th century stonework, presumably quarried from the
priory. A corresponding gap in the north wall probably contained a similar
feature. The excavations revealed a metalled road or path running beneath this
opening, forming part of a formal axial approach from the gatehouse.
Immediately to the east of the arch is a smaller, round-arched doorway, also
built of reused 12th century stonework with roll moulding and billet
decoration, which opened onto a stair leading to the upper floor. Traces of
the stair can be seen on the face of the internal wall to the east of the
opening. Other post-monastic features in the south wall, probably relating to
a later alteration, are arranged symmetrically in relation to the smaller arch
and include rectangular doorways and a series of rectangular windows of late
16th or early 17th century type with chamfered brick surrounds. Drawings made
in the early 18th and early 19th centuries show the large central arch
blocked, with a similar rectangular window inset, although this blocking has
now been removed. One of the surviving windows at the eastern end displays
original brick mullions and transom; the others are now blocked, some with
smaller windows set into the blocking. On the ground floor to the west of
the larger arch are a well and a latrine sump which are thought to be of 17th
century date or later. According to the 18th century historian, Blomefield,
the roof was pulled off much of the house in 1737, although later maps
indicate that the western end may have continued in use as a farm building
until the early 19th century.

To the south of the building there are remains of the formal garden, arranged
on the same north-south axis as the approach and divided into two parts. The
part adjoining the building is enclosed by the remains of a post-medieval wall
which still stands around the southern end. Flint footings are also visible
along the west side, backing a low, flat-topped earthen bank about 2m wide.
The standing section of the wall, which shows evidence of repair and
rebuilding, is constructed of flint and clunch with a plinth of moulded brick
of 16th or 17th century type. In it there is a central arched gateway
constructed of assorted reused medieval architectural fragments and probably
inserted in the 19th century. This opens onto a water garden at a lower level,
with a central, rectangular, embanked pond. To the west of the central gateway
and largely below the level of the garden to the north is another archway of

The buried foundations of a wall thought to be of monastic origin, and
probably to mark part of the boundary of the precinct, run for approximately
165m westwards from a point west of the gardens along the south side of the
boundary between the river meadows and properties to the north. These produce
parch marks in the grass which are visible in dry weather and are included in
the scheduling.

The supply of water which the monastery needed for agricultural and industrial
purposes, as well as for domestic use including sanitation, would have been
drawn chiefly from the river, and several water management features which
survive or have been recorded in the meadows north of the river and within the
monastic precinct are thought to have a monastic origin. A map published in
1807 shows a channel to the west of the former line of Water Lane, running
northwards towards the conventual buildings, and this feature, which has been
infilled but which will survive as a buried feature, probably supplied water
to the infirmary and to flush the drain behind the reredorter. Further to the
west, another channel still remains open, running from the river northwards in
the direction of the kitchens in the south western part of the claustral
complex and turning westwards along the southern edge of the gardens
associated with the Prior's Lodging. To the west of the gardens a slight
meander in its course marks the site of a large pond which may originally have
been associated with a mill. The pond has now been infilled, but is marked on
19th century maps and remained visible until the 1970s as a damp hollow.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are Abbey Farm
Cottage and adjacent barn, Abbey House and associated garages, a greenhouse,
all surfaces of drives and garden paths, yard and car park surfaces, paving,
inspection chambers, garden walls (other than those of medieval origin),
fences, gates, a service pole to the south east of the gatehouse, and a
concrete post inscribed MoW 1955 adjacent to the gatehouse, all English
Heritage signs and information boards, metal shutters over the Howard burial
vault within the ruined church, sheds within the English Heritage compound,
and the modern foot bridges and lamp posts; the ground beneath all these
features is, however, included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597
to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both
religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious
communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks,
canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of
religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated
from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England.
These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to
tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide
variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a
result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout,
although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for
the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into
the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship,
learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some
orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were
established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest
of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish
churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. The
Cluniac order had its origins in the monastic reformations which swept across
continental Europe in the tenth century. The reformations which occurred were
partly a response to the impact of Viking raids and attacks on established
monastic sites in the preceding century but were also a reaction against the
corruption and excesses which were increasingly noted amongst earlier
establishments. The Cluniacs were amongst the most successful of the new
reformed orders that developed. The founding house of Cluny in south-east
France was established in AD 910. Here the community obeyed a stringent set of
rules which, amongst other things, involved celibacy, communal living and
abstention from eating meat. The ideals of the Cluniac reformers passed on to
England in the tenth century. Influential Cluniac houses had been established
in England by 1077. Once established, Cluniac houses were notable for the
strong links they maintained both with the founding house of Cluny in France
and also with other houses of their order. Most Cluniac houses in England were
established near major towns and they particularly sought locations in valley
bottoms within the protection of a nearby castle. Cluniac monasteries are
notable for highly decorated, elaborate buildings. Cluniac houses are
relatively rare, with some forty-four houses known in England, and all
examples exhibiting good survival of archaeological remains are worthy of

Thetford Priory was one of three principal priories of the Cluniac order
established in Norfolk, and the standing remains illustrate very clearly the
layout of the conventual buildings, as well as providing information
concerning their structural history. The monument will also retain
archaeological evidence for the domestic, social and economic organization of
the monastery. This archaeological evidence is supplemented by documentary
records which include a late 15th and early 16th century register containing
further details of the domestic and agricultural buildings within the monastic
precinct. The association of the priory with the Howard Dukes of Norfolk, and
the evidence for the conversion of one of the monastic buildings into a high
status dwelling following the dissolution, give the monument additional

The site is one of several monuments relating to the medieval town of Thetford
which are accessible to the public and, being partly in the care of the
Secretary of State and maintained for public display, it provides a valuable
recreational and educational amenity.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Blomefield, F, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, (1805), 116-118
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 363-369
Raby, F J E, Baillie Reynolds, P K, Thetford Priory, (1984)
Davison, A, 'East Anglian Archaeology' in Excavations in Thetford by B K Davison: The documentary record, , Vol. 62, (1993), 195
Wilcox, R, 'Norfolk Archaeol' in Thetford Cluniac Priory Excavations 1971-4, , Vol. 40 Pt 1, (1987), 1-18
DoE, DoE 36/TUD/UK59/pt 11 5204, (1946)
held in SMR file : ref. 5748, (1990)
Heyward, S, (1995)
NRO: Rye Mss 17, Martin, T, Church Collections: Sketch of the Old Priory House at Thetford,
Penn, K, Excavations in Outer Court..Priory of Our Lady Thetford, 1991, Typescript: copy in SMR file
reproduced in Guide Book, Godfrey,
Reproduced in Wilcox R (1987), Wilkinson, J, (1822)
Title: A Map of the Municipal Borough of Thetford
Source Date: 1837
NRO P150B/6 M9
Title: A Plan of the Ancient Town of Thetford
Source Date: 1807
NRO P150B/6 M9
Title: A Plan of the Ancient Town of Thetford
Source Date: 1807
NRO P150B/6 M9
Title: Ordnance Survey 1:2500 Map
Source Date: 1833

Title: Ordnance Survey 1:2500
Source Date: 1883

Typescript: copy in SMR file, Heywood, S, Abbey Farm, Thetford: a Timber-Framed Cluniac Coventual Building, (1991)

Source: Historic England

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