Thetford, chapter 21: Of the priory of Monks, commonly called the Abbey

Pages 102-107

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1805.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.




This monastery was first founded on the Suffolk side of the river, by Roger Bygod, in the cathedral church, and afterwards translated hither by the founder, as may be seen in the foregoing chapters; (fn. 1) and though there are many printed authors that have given us an account of the foundation, I shall rather choose to follow that wrote by Jeffry, prior of this house, than any other, it being likely that he was most capable of coming at the truth, not only upon the account of his living so much nearer the time, but because he had all the evidences of the priory at his command, an abstract of whose History, as far as he completed it, I shall here subjoin.

In the year of our Lord 1104, (fn. 2) from the passion of St. Edmund the King and Martyr 234, and from the Normans entering this land 37, in the reign of King Henry I. there was a nobleman called Roger Bigot, who governed the realm under the King, and had done so from the Conquest. This wise man, being truly sensible that such great power could not be executed without many errours, and being desirous to atone for them in this life, imagined that nothing would do it better than quitting the pomp of the world and turning pilgrim, and thereupon he resolved to go to Jerusalem, that be might the more fervently worship bis Saviour, at the place where his feet stood when he ascended from earth; and in order to prepare for his journey, he called together the chief of his friends and acquaintance, to confer with them about it, who were all much grieved at his design, but had not courage enough to attempt the dissuading him from it, till Etbran, his steward, a man of much skill in the law, undertook to do it, by shewing him, that it was by bis means only that he and all his friends enjoyed the honours and estates they possessed, and that consequently his leaving them might be the ruin of them and their families, and that therefore, for their sakes, he hoped he would not undertake such a journey, but as he designed it for an atonement for his errours, and the good of his soul, they would be far from desiring him to recede from such a good intention, assuring him, they all thought it would as much redound to the present and future prosperity of himself and family, if he would expend the money he designed for this pilgrimage, in building and endowing a monastery upon his own demeans, and placing religious persons, under a spiritual pastor, of some particular order, who should continually pray for him, his predecessors and successonrs, to the world's end, putting him in mind that Christ hath said, "Give alms of such things as you have, and behold all things are clean unto you." (fn. 3) inferring from thence, that such a foundation would be giving alms to future generations, and consequently would render a man more clean than all he could do in his pilgrimage; which arguments had such an effect, that he laid aside that design, and immediately resolved to begin such a foundation; upon which, by the advice of a monk named William de Walsam, he applied to the holy man, Hugh Abbot of Cluni, by Lanzo Abbot of Lewes, desiring him to send some monks of Cluni, for whom he designed to build and endow a monastery in his own land, to which request the Abbot answered, that all his monks being brought up in Burgundy, they were entire strangers both to the customs and language of such a distant nation as England, for which reason he was afraid to send them, and therefore he committed the care of the whole affair to Lanzo, strictly enjoining him to send some of his monks of Lewes who knew the language and customs of the place, to live in the monastery, ordering him to see to the building of it, and to be prior or custos there as long as he lived, paying every year to him and his abbey of Cluni a mark of silver, which the said Roger settled on that abbey, as a token of their dependancy upon it, and that for the future they could not be subject to any other monastery, nor follow any other but the Cluniac order; and as soon as this was settled, the aforesaid Roger, by the license, consent, and advice, of King Henry I. and Maud his queen, of Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury, Herbert late Bishop of Thetford, and Alice, wife of the said Roger, with many other nobles of the King's court, began to build a monastery at Thetford, for the reception of the monks, close by the church of the Blessed Virgin, from which Herbert translated the see, which church, with all that belonged to it, the said Roger had bought of Richard, son of Bishop Arfast, whose inheritance it was; giving him other lands in exchange; and as soon as the offices were built (which did not take long time, they being only of wood) Lanzo sent twelve monks, with one Malgod, whom he had made their prior, to London, where they were met by Ralf Fitz-Walter, and Ralf de Valle Redonij, two of the chief of Roger's barons, and were conducted by them, with great honour and worship, to Thetford, where they entered on Monday the 4th of July, about nine of the clock, it being the day of the Feast of the Translation of St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, Roger Bigot, his wife, and all his barons, chief tenants, and soldiers, with a great concourse of other people, both clergy and laity, being assembled in order to receive them with the utmost honour; and thus accompanied, the monks took possession of that ancient church of the Blessed Virgin, and All-the-Saints, which had been the mother church, and episcopal see of the EastAngles: and as this place had lately been involved with grief, on account of the bishoprick being translated from them, so now they much rejoiced at the coming of such good men, presuming they should have God's favour, by their prayers and laudable conversation among them; and from this time the monks began to live according to their order, and Roger, and Prior Malgod, were very intent for three years, in building a new monastery within the burgh.

At this time there was a man in Lewes monastery, named Stephen, who was very remarkable, both for his learning and morals; he was born of noble parentage in Provence, and became a monk under Abbot Hugh, in the monastery of Cluni in Burgundy, by whom he was sent to the monastery at Lewes, to be sub-prior, and assistant to the venerable Lanzo, where he behaved himself in such an agreeable manner, that, in case of Lanzo's death, they had determined unanimously to choose him their abbot; but it happened far better for this house, for Abbot Hugh, considering there wanted such a person to perfect the foundation, as would be agreeable to the monks and their founder, (Malgod, though a very honest good man, not having the spirit nor learning of Stephen,) ordered Lanzo to recall Malgod, and send Stephen thither, who, upon Malgod's resignation, was made prior here, though much against the inclination of the monks of Lewes, who lamented his leaving them: but upon finding it was not occasioned by Lanzo their prior, as they suspected, but was really the command of their holy father Hugh, they submitted, and Stephen came to Thetford, to the joy of the founder, the monks, and all the burgh: but no sooner had he entered his office, and viewed the place where the monastery had been three years in building, but he perceived it was too small, and so much enclosed with the burgesses houses on all sides, that there was not room enough to build a convenient reception for them, and therefore, like a wise man, foreseeing the monks inconveniences, he applied to William de Albini, one of the King's privy-council, and son-in-law to the founder, who by him was often entreated to remove the monastery into some more convenient place without the burgh, where they might have room to receive guests of all degrees, according to their stations.

This, though it was disagreeable to the burghers, and several of the monks, was approved of by the founder, who consulted the King about it, who then kept his court at Thetford, and he, like a wise prince, forseeing the monks conveniency, advised him to remove it to a large pleasant, open place, just without the west part of the burgh, on the other side of the river, (fn. 4) and there, by the approbation of Herbert Bishop of Norwich, he began to found a monastery in honour of the blessed and glorious Virgin, and to encourage the work, the Bishop himself, with his own hands, began to dig the foundation, in the very place the King had pitched upon; (fn. 5) and after the workmen had dug very deep, because the earth was sandy, the prior and founder, with many other noblemen, laid the first stones of the foundation, and then the founder declared before all the people, that he would finish the work at his own expense, at the same time assigning 15l. per annum towards perfecting the foundation, ordering the prior to send two monks to him after the Feast of the Blessed Virgin, because he designed against that time to provide a manor to settle for the monks maintenance, declaring also, that this his monastery should be subject to no person living but the Abbot of Cluni: all this was done on the eighth day before the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and thus the success and future prosperity of the foundation seemed quite settled. But alas! the eighth day after the foundation was laid, Roger Bigot the founder died, and the Bishop of Norwich (who was not far off) hearing of it, came by night, and seizing his body against the will of his wife, and those that were about him, carried it to be buried at Norwich, which was certainly unjustly done by the Bishop, because he himself was witness to his foundation charter, in which he gave his own body, with that of Alice his wife, and all his children, to be buried in this priory; (fn. 6) as soon, therefore, as the Prior (who was very intent in carrying on the building) heard of his death, he took four of his monks, and hastened to Norwich, where he found the body laid on a bier, upon which the Prior, the wife of the deceased, and all his friends, entreated the Bishop, that he would restore the body to be buried in his monastery, according to his resolution in his lifetime, which he himself was witness to, but the Bishop absolutely denied it, and endeavoured by entreaty, flattery, and large promises, to prevail upon the Prior and monks to consent to have the body peaceably buried at Norwich, and lay aside all future claim; but they would by no means come in to it, but instead thereof, they all fell down at the Bishop's feet, beseeching him to give them their founder's body, to bury it as he desired, which the Bishop in great wrath refused to do; upon which the Prior, in the name of God and the Blessed Virgin, (fn. 7) adjured the Bishop to return it, who would not, but buried it in his cathedral at Norwich; (fn. 8) and soon after, the Prior and Monks brought an action against him, setting forth, that though Roger Bigot, their founder, in his lifetime had given himself, wife, children, and all his barons, to be buried in his monastery at Thetford, yet the Bishop had seized him, and buried him at Norwich, to their great injury: to this the Bishop answered, by the oaths of divers witnesses, that before the monks came to Thetford, he had given himself, wife, children, and barons to be buried at Norwich: (fn. 9) upon which, before they proceeded to judgment, the monks were forced to own their errour and beg pardon, and renounce all future claim to his body, and to those of his wife, children, and barons, in the presence of King Henry himself and his barons, who were then at Nottingham. But notwithstanding this disappointment, the Prior went on with the building, and had such interest, that he increased the revenues, and though he laid one of the first stones, yet he lived to see the church, cloisters, and the whole work entirely finished, so that he was deservedly reckoned one of its founders.

In the year of our Lord 1114, the monks left their old monastery, and entered this, on St. Martin's day, bringing with them all the valuable moveables out of their old church and cloister; and from this time their interest increased, so that in 1248 they had a general charter of free-warren in all their lands in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire. In 1299, the Prior paid four marks per annum to the clerks that celebrated mass at the altar of the Blessed Virgin, in St. Paul's cathedral. (fn. 10) The King had power to grant an annual pension or corrody to one chaplain and one priest, payable by the Prior, and as often as either of them died or were preferred, the Crown nominated another. (fn. 11)

About 1300, there was a chantry of one chaplain founded, daily to officiate in the abbey church, (for it is so called in the foundation,) by Richard de Huphall, for his own soul, and the souls of William his father, Catherine his mother, and Andrew his uncle, of the Bishop of Norwich, his father, and mother, predecessors, and successours, and all the faithful deceased; the chaplain was to be presented by the Prior and Convent, who were to pay him his stipend, and was to be admitted by the Bishop, who was to swear him to perform the rules of the foundation, after which he was to enjoy it for life; William de Brom, the first chaplain, resigned in 1300, and the 7th of the ides of Sept. John de Herlingflet, priest, was admitted, after whose death there were no more presented, but the names of the founder and his friends being added to the daily office for the founders of the priory, the chantry ceased.

This house being esteemed an alien, by reason of the mark a year paid to the Abbot of Cluni, as a token of dependency, and being subject to no bishop but only to that abbot, the Pope, or his Legate, it was always seized with the rest of the alieu priories; as often as we had war in France: but yet it did not suffer so much at those times, as several did, besause the Earls of Norfolk, who were patrons of it, and by reason of their protection, esteemed as so many founders, had it granted to them during the seizures, and at last had interest enough to get it made a denizen by Edward III. in the year 1375, after which it had no more disturbance till its dissolution, which the Duke of Norfolk did all he possibly could to prevent, it being the burial place of all his ancestors, with whom he desired to be interred, not liking to see their monuments demolished, and the church in which they were buried laid waste; and though the King had promised him the monastery and all its revenues, yet he desired them not for his own use, but would have settled them on their own church, which he would have made collegiate instead of conventual; the same good design had Archbishop Parker, as to his college of Stoke in Suffolk, of which he was dean, and for which he had compiled a good body of statutes, as Strype in his Life of that Archbishop informs us: The good statutes which this dean of Stoke college had framed for it, added to the original ones, made this a very good and usefull foundation, and the fame of it was so great, that about the year 1540, the old, most noble, and illustrious Duke of Norfolk, sent a letter to the Dean, that he would send him the original foundation of that his college of secular priests, being founded as he heard of an honest sort, and that he would but detain it, till he had caused it to be written out, or had taken some notes out of it. Because the monastery of Thetford being now the King's, upon the Act for the dissolution of religious houses, having been founded by a Duke of Norfolk, the King had granted it back to this Duke, to turn it into a college of secular priests; and so he should have occasion to furnish it with good statutes. Here his father and other his ancestors lay, and here he intended himself also to be buried, as he wrote to the Dean." (fn. 12) But this design was immediately stopped by the King, who saw that so many desired the same thing, that instead of a dissolution it would have been a translation only, and therefore he would not permit even Stoke college to stand, but that, though a useful foundation, had the same fate. And thus this monastery, contrary to the Duke's inclination, was totally suppressed, being surrendered to the King, Feb. 16, 1450, by William Ixworth, then prior, Rich. Methwold, Godfrey Thetford, John Thetford, William Colchester, William Brockford, Thomas Witherset, Peter Thetford. Robert Whetyng, Nicholas Horkysley, (fn. 13) John Garbolsham, Christopher Garbolsham, Thomas Hynyngham, and Thomas Berney, monks there. The surrender lies in the Augmentation Office, (fn. 14) and hath its seal still upon it. The cell of Wangford in Suffolk, which belonged to this priory, was surrendered with it, and passed along with the monastery and all its revenues to the Duke of Norfolk, in whose family the monastery hath continued to this time, the honourable Philip Howard being the present [1738] owner. It was valued at the Suppression at 312l. 13s. 4d. according to Mr. Dugdale, and at 418l. 6s. 3d. according to Mr. Speed. The priors were always summoned to convocation.


  • 1. See p. 60.
  • 2. Most writers say 1103.
  • 3. Luke xi. v. 41.
  • 4. Viz. the Norfolk side.
  • 5. He favoured and advised the foundation, in order to make some recompense for removing the see.
  • 6. Dug. Mon. tom. i. fo. 664. "Ego itaque Rogerus Bygot dono imprimis et reddo meipsum et uxorem meam Adelyciam, et omnes liberos meos, &c. Deo et ecclesiæ Beatæ Mariæ de Theford, sicut fratres et benefactores et advocatores, sepeliendos in fine." His testibus, Dom. Hereberto Episc. &c.
  • 7. Tunc Prior ex parte Dei et Beatæ Mariæ - - - - - - Thus ends Prior Jeffry's History, the rest of the book being ruled, but never finished; the other part of the account is supplied from the Record, as it is entered in the Register of the Cathedral of Norwich, lib. iii. fol. 56.
  • 8. Viz. Sept. 8, 1108, but according to most writers, 1107. Dug. Bar. vol. i. fol. 132.
  • 9. Though all authors tell us he was buried at Thetford, it is plain he was not; but yet they had great reason to think so, by his foundation deed. Dug. Bar. vol. i. fol. 132. Weaver, 829. Stow, &c.
  • 10. Dug. Hist. of St. Paul's, fol. 18.
  • 11. Fitz-Herbert Nat. Brevium. Edit. 1687, p. 515.
  • 12. Strype's Life of Archbishop Parker, Lond. 1711, fol. 13.
  • 13. E Lib. Comp. Compert, Tho. Wetherset, fatetur furtum Nich. Hokesley, fat. pol. vol. etiam illic colligitur, suspicio confederacois. quum essent XVII. numero.
  • 14. Pix. F.