A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
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19. THE PRIORY OF ST. MARY, THETFORD (fn. 1)
The Cluniac priory of Thetford was first founded on the Suffolk side of the river by Roger Bigod in the reign of Henry I. Roger had made a vow of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but was allowed to commute this by applying the money which it would have cost to the establishing of a monastery. He communicated his intention to Hugh, abbot of Cluni; and although the abbot could not spare monks from his house to form the new foundation, he welcomed the proposed addition to the order, and asked for a silver mark yearly in token of its dependence. The abandoned cathedral church of the East Anglian bishops, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, was at first selected as the church of the new priory, and a cloister or cells of woodwork were erected for the accommodation of the monks. Lanzo, prior of Lewes, in 1104 sent twelve monks to serve at Thetford, together with Malgod, a man of simple life, to serve as their prior. Thetford, desolate at the loss of its bishops, welcomed the monks, and for three years they were busy in building the new monastery within the borough. At the end of this time Stephen, a monk of noble parentage and of the highest learning and morals, a great friend of the abbot of Cluni and sub-prior of Lewes, was sent to Thetford to complete the foundation, and to take the place of Malgod, who was recalled, as prior. Stephen at once saw that the monastic site, surrounded by the houses of the burghers, was inconveniently straitened, and that there was no room for a guest-house. He soon prevailed on the founder, with the sanction of the king, who often held his court at Thetford, to give them a pleasant and open site on the other side of the river in the county of Norfolk. Herbert, bishop of Norwich, turned the first sod of the new foundation, and the prior, founder, and many noblemen laid the foundation stones. But the eighth day after the stonelaying Roger Bigod died, and an unseemly dispute ensued between the prior and bishop as to the place of his burial. Eventually the latter prevailed, and Roger was buried in the cathedral church of Norwich. Meanwhile the building went on, the revenues increased, and Prior Stephen lived to see its completion, and the removal of the convent to their new premises on St. Martin's Day, 1114.
In 1240 Gregory IX granted leave to the priory of Thetford to appropriate the church of Notheli, in the diocese of London, which was already in their patronage, a due portion being reserved for their vicarage. (fn. 2) The revenues of this priory increased so considerably during the thirteenth century that at the taxation of 1291 it held the appropriation of six Norfolk churches and portions of the rectory of eighteen other churches in the same county, as well as four in Suffolk. The total annual value of its temporalities and spiritualities was then reckoned at £123 12s. 5d. The Valor of 1535 gives the clear annual value of this wealthy priory at £312 14s. 4½d.; the gross value was £418 6s. 3d.
In 1331 John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, obtained licence for alienation in mortmain of the advowson and appropriation of the church of Gersham to the priory of Thetford. (fn. 3)
If the first Prior Stephen thus worked for the good of his house, the second prior of that name was equally thorough in working evil. He was appointed some time before 1240, in which year he wrote to Cluni excusing himself from attending the general chapter, (fn. 4) and was a native of Savoy, a connexion (or at least a compatriot) of the queen. Presuming on the influence of his royal protectress, he turned the priory of Thetford into a house of debauchery, carousing night and day with his brothers Bernard, a knight, and Guiscard, whom Matthew Paris (fn. 5) describes as 'clericus monstruosus . . . cujus venter quasi uter in pruina, cujus quoque cadaver plaustrum oneraret.' At last in 1248 he engaged in a quarrel with one of his brethren, a hot-blooded Welsh monk Stephen de Charun by name, (fn. 6) whom he wished to send back to Cluni, whence he had only lately come; angered at his prior's abusive language the monk drew his knife and stabbed him that he died before the great 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.
An alleged miraculous interposition about the middle of the thirteenth century had considerable effect upon the fortunes of the priory. The following is an abstract of the remarkable story, as told by Brame in the fifteenth century. (fn. 7) An artisan of Thetford, suffering from an incurable complaint, dreamt three times that the Blessed Virgin appeared, and told him that if he would regain his health he must persuade the prior to build a Lady Chapel on the north side of the church. When the prior heard the revelation he began to build a chapel of timber; but the man persisted that the Virgin should be honoured with a fair building of stone. After some further revelations the prior set to work in earnest, and then a new marvel occurred. In their old monastery on the other side of the water there had been, in the frater, a wooden image of the Virgin which the monks had brought with them to their new church; but in the course of time it had been removed to make way for one of greater beauty, and placed in a dusty corner. The thrifty prior thought that this old image would suffice for the new chapel, and it was handed over to the painter to be beautified. On removing the old paint from the head a silver plate came to light, and on its removal a hollow was disclosed wherein, wrapped in lead, were a variety of precious relics, with their names engraved on wrappers of lead. The more important of the contents were relics of the robe of our Lord, of the girdle of our Lady, of our Lord's sepulchre, of the rock of Calvary, of our Lady's sepulchre, of our Lord's manger, of the sepulchre of St. John, and relics of SS. George, Agnes, Barbara, Vincent, Leger, Gregory, Leonard, Jerome, Edmund, Etheldreda, and parts of the grave-clothes of Lazarus. A letter was also found, addressed to Stephen the second prior by William, minister of the church at Merlesham, who sent these relics, transmitted from the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, at the request of Hugh Bigod and a monk named Ralph. When the relic-bearing image had been honourably replaced, the priory became the scene of miraculous cures. Brame gives the particulars of three, one of recovery of speech, and two of the restoration to life of children apparently dead. Pilgrims flocked to the priory, and as a result of their offerings a fine Lady Chapel was built on the north of the quire, the quire was itself extended forty feet, the frater was rebuilt on a larger scale, and five monks were added to the establishment.
Martin says that in 1236 the abbot of Cluni complained to Henry III that Earl Roger would not suffer him to visit this monastery, although it was a daughter of his church of Cluni, and one to which he claimed to appoint the prior; but that, after a suit, (fn. 8) the visitation was adjudged to the prior and the patronage to the earl. (fn. 9) Nevertheless, as is proved from the many subsequent Cluni visitations, this decision must have been speedily upset.
The report of the visitors from Cluni in 1262 sets forth that they made inquiries in London through Henry, sub-prior of Thetford, andThomas the chamberlain, as to the condition of their house, and they stated that all divine offices and spiritual duties were properly carried out. The prior was prevented from coming in person, being hindered by bodily infirmities. The debts of the house amounted to 610 marks, the prior furnishing a full statement of accounts. The number of the brethren was twenty-two. (fn. 10) The Cluniac visitors of 1275-6 were at Thetford on the third Wednesday in Lent. They found twenty-four brethren all living with sufficient regularity save Ralph the cellarer, whom they found guilty of incontinency. The visitors expelled him and sent him to do penance at a distant convent. They also removed another brother for injuring a college servant. The liabilities of the house were 804 marks, and there was also a debt under the chapter's seal of 400 marks to the convent's patron, the Earl Marshal. (fn. 11)
In September, 1279, the priory was visited by the French prior of Mont-Didier and the English prior of Lenton. They reported that Prior Vincent, who found thirteen monks there on his appointment, had increased the number to twenty-two. They all led commendable lives, and the divine offices were regularly and devoutly conducted. The buildings were in good repair, and the church and cloister exceptional for beauty and workmanship. There was a sufficiency of goods until the next harvest. The debt of the house was 500 marks when the prior took it over, although his predecessor, Prior Thomas, affirmed that the liabilities did not exceed 400 marks. The prior had taken in hand the repair of the conventual buildings and the erection of new granges, on which £100 had been already spent. The visitors expressed themselves in warm terms of the worthy character of the prior, whose praise was in everyone's mouth. The house was, however, much embarrassed and crippled by the residence there of the advocate (advocatus), brother of the Earl Marshal, who cost the house more than the whole convent and prior. (fn. 12) This advocate, or avoué, was John the brother of Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk, the patron of the house, who succeeded to his honours in 1270.
In May, 1281, Vincent, prior of Thetford, and the sub-prior of Lewes, were appointed to act as vicegerents for John, prior of Lewes, during his absence beyond the seas. (fn. 13) On 6 September of the same year the prior of Thetford obtained protection for his own absence across the seas until a fortnight after Easter. (fn. 14)
Vincent, prior of Thetford, on 16 March, 1287, nominated Henry de Henham his fellowmonk, and Guy de Holbeach to act as his attorneys until Michaelmas, as he was going beyond the seas. (fn. 15) The same prior on 22 January, 1291, obtained protection during a year's absence across the seas, (fn. 16) and on 4 March of the following year the prior again obtained leave of absence until Michaelmas, appointing attorneys. (fn. 17)
On the death of Prior Vincent about the beginning of the fourteenth century, considerable dispute arose as to his successor, which resulted in an appeal to Rome. In April, 1301, the pope directed the prior of Holy Trinity, York, in conjunction with two continental ecclesiastics, to hold an inquiry into the cause relative to the priory of Thetford, subject to the abbot and convent of Cluni, by whom their prior had. hitherto been appointed. The convent of Thetford, wishing to withdraw themselves from the jurisdiction of Cluni, elected by the procurement of the Earl of Norfolk one of their own monks, Reginald de Montargi, or de Eye, as prior, and his election was confirmed by the bishop of Norwich. Reginald resisted the abbot of Cluni, and went so far as to imprison and ill-treat certain monks sent by the abbot to publish the process against the prior and convent of Thetford, relying on the power of the bishop, John Bigod, clerk, and Roger his brother, Earl Marshal, patron of Thetford, to defend his position. The abbot's proctor on this occasion was Thomas de Mountargys, a monk of Lewes, who came to Norwich to lay his case before the bishop, apparently before he confirmed the election ofReginald. While Thomas was sitting in the cemetery of Norwich Priory reading over his instruments, Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, and a number of his friends came and seized him, carried him out of the cemetery against his will, and set some thirty men to guard the gate and prevent his re-entering. The monk then tried to seek refuge in the cemetery of St. George's church, but two of the earl's men came up and beat him and cut off part of his hood and assaulted a bystander who remonstrated with them, so that the monk fled in fear to the church of the Friars of the Sack, and his pursuers came in after him and shut him up in a room within the friars' house and kept him there till late the next afternoon, after the time fixed by the bishop for hearing his case had passed. (fn. 18) Cluni then petitioned Boniface VIII in the matter, and the pope ordered his commissioners, if the above allegations were true, to upset the bishop's action, to deprive the intended prior, to release the imprisoned monks, and to warn John Bigod and the Earl Marshal to desist from interference. If this order was disobeyed all parties were to be cited before the pope. (fn. 19) The result of this appeal could not have been favourable to Prior Reginald, for in 1302 Ralf de Frezenfeld was appointed prior by the abbot of Cluni. (fn. 20)
During the short rule of Reginald de Eye one of his monks, Henry de Wangeford, fled from the priory to the neighbouring house of Austin Canons, from which he went away after sunset in company with one of the canons, Richard de Harpele, and some servants of the same house who escorted him with arms half a league in the direction of Elveden, when Prior Reginald came up with a number of monks and servants, and a fight ensued ending in the re-capture of brother Henry, (fn. 21) who was taken back to the priory and there imprisoned for two months, but eventually escaped. (fn. 22)
To Ralf de Frezenfeld succeeded Thomas le Bygod, a monk of Walden. His appointment as prior was confirmed by the bishop on 31 December, 1304. Blomefield says that he was elected by the sub-prior and monks; but this seems most doubtful, for he had not shaken off his allegiance to Cluni and attended the chapter-general in the year following his appointment. On 14 October, 1305, Thomas prior of Thetford, nominated two attorneys to act for him in his absence until the following Easter. (fn. 23)
On 3 February, 1307, Walter de Norwich, king's clerk, was appointed to the custody of the priory of Thetford, which was stated to be of the king's patronage since the death of Roger le Bigod, earl of Norfolk. The reason for taking this step was said to be that the house was oppressed with debt, (fn. 24)
John de Benstede and William Inge were accordingly appointed by the crown in October, 1307, to the custody of the priory of Thetford, with its cells of Wangeford and Horkesley, to apply the rents and issues to the discharge of the debts of the house, reserving for the prior and convent and its ministers a reasonable sustenance. (fn. 25)
In 1308 the king committed the custody of the house to William de Ventodoro, dean of the priory of St. Peter of Carennac, Gascony, during the voidance of the priprship, instituting him ad interim prior of Thetford. In January, 1309, the term of his custody was extended to Michaelmas. (fn. 26) When Michaelmas came William de Ventodoro's term of custody was further extended to Easter, to enable the abbot of Cluni, to whom the preferment belonged, to prefer one of his monks and present him to the king. From an inquisition it appeared that upon every voidance the abbots of Cluni had been accustomed to prefer one of their monks to that house, and by letter to present him to the Earl of Norfolk for the time being as patron of the priory, for the restoration of the temporalities; that the earls had always made such restoration until Earl Roger during the war with France had caused certain of the monks, on the death of Vincent to elect Reginald de Eye, to whom he delivered the temporalities; that upon every voidance the earls were accustomed to place a porter (a horseman or footman) in the priory, who received necessary sustenance, but who took nothing else either for himself or his lord; and that the earls, fealty having been done them by the priors preferred, were accustomed by their bailiffs to restore the temporalities and remove the porter without taking or retaining to their own use any of the goods of the priory. (fn. 27) The custody of the temporalities in the hands of William de Ventodoro was still further extended until Christmas, 1309. (fn. 28) Soon after this date William must have been presented and accepted by Cluni as actual prior, for in February, 1310, he obtained, under the title of prior of Thetford, protection for a year's absence across the seas, and. nominated attorneys to act for him. (fn. 29) In 1311, Prior William Ventodoro again obtained protection to cross the seas from 14 May until the following All Saints' Day. (fn. 30) Soon after this Prior William either died or resigned, for in December, 1311, we find the temporalities of Thetford restored to Martin de Rinhiaco, a Cluniac monk who had just been preferred to be prior by the abbot of Cluni. (fn. 31)
In 1313 there was a most serious riot at the priory, when a mob made forcible entry, assaulted Prior Martin and his monks and servants, maimed 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, and carried away the goods of the priory. On 17 August a commission of oyer and terminer was appointed to inquire into the affray and give judgement, and protection for a year was granted to Prior Martin. (fn. 32)
At the request of the prior and convent Walter de Norwich was appointed in 1314, during pleasure, to be keeper of the house, which the king had taken into his protection on account of its poverty and indebtedness. A reasonable allowance was to be made for the sustenance of the convent and its servants, and the balance was to be reserved for the discharge of the debts of the priory and to make good its defects. The keeper was to accept the advice and assistance of some of the more discreet of the house, and so long as he remained in custody no sheriff, bailiff, or other minister of the king was to lodge in the priory or its granges without the keeper's special licence. (fn. 33)
In 1318 the Close Rolls show further money entanglements. Peter de Bosco, who had been appointed prior in 1316, acknowledged on the part of the convent a debt of £ 100 owing to Master Roger de la Bere, clerk, and another debt of £50, owing to John Sarazein, of Ekenbleyen. (fn. 34) On 18 June of the same year, Boniface Karle de Doliano, executor of the will of Master Berenger de Quiliano, put in his place Banquinus Brunelesii of Florence, to sue in the matter of a recognizance in chancery for £200 made to Berenger by the prior of Thetford. (fn. 35) Evidently the house was in the hands of professional money-lenders. In 1323 Prior Peter acknowledged a debt of £200 to John de Dynieton, clerk, (fn. 36) and James de Cusancia, prior of Thetford, acknowledged in 1336 a debt of £82 13s. 4d. due to William Cosyn, a citizen of London. (fn. 37)
In March, 1337, Prior James de Cusancia further acknowledged his indebtedness in the sum of £88 to Peter Guernersi and Bindus Gile of Florence; this entry was afterwards cancelled on payment. (fn. 38) In June of the same year the prior had to acknowledge for himself and convent that they owed to Andrew Berton, merchant of Chieri, the great sum of £265, to be levied in default of payment on their lands, chattels, and ecclesiastical goods in the county of Norfolk. (fn. 39) The prior was allowed to retain custody of his house on the yearly payment to the crown of 50 marks, and 10 marks as custody fee. (fn. 40)
Prior James in 1345 refused, in conjunction with the other leading English priors of the Cluniac order, to pay their subsidy to the abbot of Cluni. Clement VI, on appeal, forwarded his mandate, through the archbishop of Canterbury to the prior, ordering him to comply with the ancient custom.
On account of his great age Prior James was removed from his rule in 1355, and was succeeded by Geoffrey de Rocherio. (fn. 41)
In 1376 letters patent were issued to the prior and convent of Thetford, granting that they should thenceforth be reputed denizen, and they were thus free from all direct allegiance to Cluni. (fn. 42) This grant was inspected and confirmed by Richard II in 1380, on payment of a fine of 40s. (fn. 43)
Although the priory of Thetford was made denizen in 1376, which enabled it to elect its own prior and set it free from any pecuniary obligation to Cluni, the house continued to yield some allegiance to the great abbey, and accepted its visitations up to the close of its existence. In 1390 the Cluniac visitors were at Thetford, and described it as a direct affiliation of the mother church of Cluni. There were then twenty-two monks. There were six daily masses, three of which were sung. A tenth part of the bread was reserved for distribution to the poor. The visitors found that all monastic obligations according to the Cluni rule were duly observed.
In 1399 Boniface IX exempted Thetford Priory from the jurisdiction of the abbot of Cluni, who is described as distant arid schismatical; he further authorized the convent to elect their own prior, with confirmation from the prior of Castle Acre. (fn. 44)
The yearly apport of 13s. 4d., which the priory of Thetford used to render to the house of Cluni, was granted by Edward III, in 1462, to the provost and college of Eton. (fn. 45)
Robert Weting occurs as prior in 1480. In the patents of that year it is recited that the king ought to have a nomination to one corrody in this priory, and he understood from Robert the prior that, although Nicholas Michegood obtained a corrody of the king's nomination in the time of John the late prior, which he still holds, nevertheless William Newerk, one of the gentlemen of the king's chapel, obtained another corrody from the late prior and still held it, so that the prior and convent are chargeable with two crown corrodies; he then for the love he bore his son Richard duke of York and Anne his wife, daughter of John, late duke of Norfolk, patrons of the priory, granted that henceforth there should only be a small royal corrody at the priory. (fn. 46) A good example of a corrody is found at an earlier date, 1315, when Simon son of Benedict of Thetford, and William de Thunderle complained that Prior Martin had refused to give them the daily corrody to which they were entitled, namely a white loaf called a ' miche,' a whole-meal loaf called ' white bread of the hall,' a gallon and a half of the best beer, pure and not mixed, a portion of soup, a dish of meat on the three meat days from both first and second courses, namely as much of each as the prior or two monks had, and on the four days in the week when fish was eaten portions of the two courses of fish, and if the first course were herrings their portion should be six herrings, but if eggs then six eggs, and for the second course as much as the prior received. (fn. 47)
The notorious visitors Legh and Leyton were here early in 1536, and alleged that they obtained confession of theft from one monk, and of uncleanness from another, adding that they suspected confederacy, as so little evil had been confessed although they were seventeen in number. (fn. 48)
On 26 March, 1537, Prior William wrote to Cromwell, in answer to his application for the preferment of his servant, John Myllsent, to their farm of Lynford. They begged to be excused, as their founder (patron), the Duke of Norfolk, had the custody of their convent seal. (fn. 49)
The Duke of Norfolk, the powerful patron of Thetford Priory, naturally looked with dismay upon the approaching destruction of this house and of the church, where not only his remote but more immediate ancestors had been honourably interred. His father, Sir Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey and duke of Norfolk, who died on 21 May, 1524, was buried before the high altar of the conventual church, where a costly monument to himself and Agnes his wife had been erected; whilst still more recently, in 1536, Henry Fitzroy, duke of Somerset, had been buried in the same place. As a means of preserving the church and establishment, the duke proposed to convert the priory into a church of secular canons, with a dean and chapter. In 1539 he petitioned the king to that effect, stating that there lay buried in that church the bodies of the Duke of Richmond, the king's natural son; the duke's late wife, Lady Anne, aunt to his highness; the late Duke of Norfolk and other of his ancestors; and that he was setting up tombs for himself and the duke of Richmond which would cost £400. He also promised to make it ' a very honest parish church.' At first the king gave ear to the proposal, and Thetford was included in a list with five others, of ' collegiate churches newly to be made and erected by the king.' Whereupon the duke had articles of a thorough scheme drawn up for insertion in the expected letters patent, whereby the monastery was to be translated into a dean and chapter. The dean was to be Prior William, (fn. 50) and the six prebendaries and eight secular canons were to be the monks of the former house, whose names are set forth in detail. The nomination of the dean was to rest with the duke and his heirs. The scheme included the appointment by the dean and chapter of a doctor or bachelor of divinity as preacher in the house, with a stipend of £20. (fn. 51).
But the capricious king changed his mind, and insisted on the absolute dissolution of the priory. The duke found that further resistance was hopeless, and on 16 February, 1540, Prior William and thirteen monks signed a deed of surrender. (fn. 52) Two months later the site and the whole possessions of the priory passed to the Duke of Norfolk for £1,000, and by the service of a knight's fee and an annual rental of £59 5s. 1d. The bones of Henry's natural son, and of the late Duke of Norfolk and others, together with their tombs, were removed to a newly erected chancel of the Suffolk church of Framingham, and the grand church of St. Mary of Thetford speedily went to decay.
Priors Of Thetford
Malgod, (fn. 53) appointed 1104
Stephen, (fn. 54) appointed 1107
Constantine, (fn. 55) occurs 1131
Martin, (fn. 56) occurs 1189
Peter Vincent, (fn. 57) occurs 1202
William I, (fn. 62) occurs 1262
Reginald de Montargi (fn. 65) alias de Eye, elected c. 1300
Ralph de Frezenfeld, (fn. 66) appointed 1302
Thomas Bigod, (fn. 67) appointed 1304
William de Ventodoro, (fn. 68) appointed 1308
Martin de Rinhiaco, (fn. 69) appointed 1311
Peter de Bosco, (fn. 70) appointed 1316
James de Cusancia, (fn. 71) occurs 1336
Geoffrey de Rochario, (fn. 72) occurs 1355
Roger de Berton, (fn. 73) occurs 1370
John de Fordham, (fn. 74) occurs 1372, 1395
John Ixworth, (fn. 75) appointed c. 1400
Nicholas, (fn. 76) appointed 1430
John Vesey, (fn. 77) appointed 1438
Robert Weting, (fn. 78) appointed 1480
Roger Baldry de Bermingham, (fn. 79)appointed 1503
William Ixworth, (fn. 80) appointed 1518, last prior.
There are two impressions as well as casts of the fine thirteenth-century seal (3½ in. × 2 in.) of this priory in the British Museum. The seated Virgin, with nimbus, holds the Holy Child, with cruciform nimbus, on the left knee, and a flower in the right hand; the background is diapered. Legend:—
SIGILLUM; PRIORIS; ET CONVENTUS: MONACHORUM THETFORDIE. (fn. 81)