Visit to the Priory of Our Lady of Thetford – Saturday 18th May 2019
A small but enthusiastic group gathered at Thetford to visit the Priory ruins. Most significantly for Ricardians, a number of important protagonists in the story of Richard were buried here in the years before Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries was completed. In fact, Thetford was the last monastic community to surrender in 1540, owing to its prestigious patronage. The Priory is now in the custody of English Heritage.
Thetford Priory was founded in 1103 from the Benedictine Order of Cluny Abbey, France, and its founder patron was the powerful Roger Bigod. After the Bigods, patronage passed through to the Mowbrays and then to the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk. It was one of the largest monastic sites in East Anglia.
During Richard’s lifetime, The Priory of Our Lady of Thetford was of significant importance to its patrons, the Howard family. The 1st and 2nd Dukes had magnificent tombs erected to demonstrate their wealth, power and piety. As we walked round the extensive remains, we paused firstly at the site of the chest tomb of the second Duke, Thomas Howard (1443-1524, above) which stood in the Presbytery of the Abbey Church; in front of the high altar it occupied a very prominent position.
His father, the first Duke John, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth fighting for Richard. It is believed his tomb (left) occupied a chapel between the north transept and the nave of the Abbey Church. Today, the location is marked with a placard.
Before the Reformation, it was very important for patrons to be buried in the Priory so that the monks could pray for their souls in perpetuity and lighted candles would burn at their tombs night and day so that they would never be forgotten. Following the Dissolution, the Howard tombs were removed to the church of St. Michael the Archangel, Framlingham where they can still be seen in the Howard chapel.
The 3rd and 4th Dukes (Mowbray) were also buried in the church but with unmarked locations. The Mowbrays, unlike the Howards, were not relocated to Framlingham after 1540. There appeared to be a space for a tomb which could have been Mowbray’s, between columns at the east end of the south aisle (slightly down from the Presbytery) where a rectangle of high quality red bricks lined the floor.
The Prior’s Lodging (left) was very impressive, even in its ruinous condition it was possible to imagine the high-status building that once stood here when the patrons, The Howards, would have stayed as guests of the Prior. Two doorways have fine carvings and face corbels still extant. The building survived as a farmhouse for two centuries after the Dissolution.
We explored other areas of the monastic buildings including the cloister, refectory, chapter house and infirmary, with its own small cloister. Finally, to end the visit we walked the short distance to view the impressive Gatehouse (left) to the Priory which has survived in an almost complete state since it was built in the 14th century.
Following our tour, we headed for lunch at (the heraldically notable) The Red Lion pub in the Market Place and some of the party finished the day by visiting the Dad’s Army Museum.
Thetford certainly has much to offer the visitor and we came away feeling that a return visit to explore further would be welcome.
In his book, A Companion & Guide to The Wars of the Roses, the author Peter Bramley lists Thetford Priory as a top-rated site to visit of national places and I think I can see why.
For further information:
For those of you with Apple Ipads or phones, there is an interesting App, entitled Thetford Priory and its Tudor Tombs, which you can download for free.
English Heritage website has more information about Thetford Priory https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/thetford-priory/