Thetford, chapter 18: Of the Frieries

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

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Francis Blomefield, 'Thetford, chapter 18: Of the Frieries', in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1805) pp. 83-89. British History Online [accessed 22 May 2024].

Francis Blomefield. "Thetford, chapter 18: Of the Frieries", in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1805) 83-89. British History Online, accessed May 22, 2024,

Blomefield, Francis. "Thetford, chapter 18: Of the Frieries", An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1805). 83-89. British History Online. Web. 22 May 2024,

In this section



There were two houses of friars in this burgh, called in ancient evidences, the friers of the Old and New House.

1. The friars of the old house,

Friars Preachers, Dominicans, or Black Friars, (for they were known by all these names,) had their monastery on Suffolk side, in the Canons Close, as it is now called; it was first the parish church of St. Mary the Great, (fn. 1) but by Bishop Arfast was made the cathedral of his see; and when that was translated to Norwich, Roger Bygod, who had purchased the church of St. Mary, or the cathedral, with the land and all that belonged to it, by way of exchange, of Richard, son of Bishop Arfast, who had the inheritance of it, by the advice and consent of King Henry I. and at the request of Bishop Herbert placed Cluniac monks in it, (fn. 2) and erected a timber building for their reception, but soon after, he began a cloister of stone, the area of which is now visible, between the church and the river; the walls of the refectory, which was on the north side of the court, not far from it, are now in a great measure standing; this cloister was near three years building, and was then left unfinished, because the Prior and monks had persuaded their founder to build them a monastery out of the city; this being so much in the heart of the city, and so pent up with the burgesses houses, that they could have no quiet, and the place being so straight and small, they could have no opening to the street, nor room to perfect any monastery that would be convenient for them, upon which their founder began to build them a church and monastery (which is now called the Abbey,) on the Norfolk side, in a pleasant place just without the city, which being finished, the monks left this house, according to some in 1107, and others in 1114, translating all their revenues, and carrying all their moveables of value, both out of the church and monastery, to their new house, leaving the church and their unfinished cloister to the custody of two or three of the monks, who kept it as a sort of a cell to their new monastery, for some time, but afterwards forsook it, and then it was exchanged for lands that laid convenient for the monks, and so became joined to the dominion or lordship, and continued in this desolate condition till Edward the Third's time, when Sir Edmund Gonvile, (fn. 3) parson of Terrington in Norfolk, who had been steward to John Earl Warren, and was then steward to Henry Earl of Lancaster, persuaded the Earl not to suffer that ancient church, which had been the mother church of the diocese, to continue in such a ruinous and desolate condition, upon which, the Earl by his advice and management repaired the church and old convent, or cloister, that the monks had formerly dwelt in, and introduced friars preachers of the order of St. Dominick, (fn. 4) and settled them here; and it is plain that this was done after the year 1327, (fn. 5) for then the Earl was restored, and before 1345, for then he died. It seems Gonvile designed this, while he was under the Earl Warren, and the Earl consented to it, which is the reason that sometimes he is called the founder, sometimes the Earl of Lancaster, but mostly Goncile himself, whom indeed they looked upon as the principal, because it was done at his motion, though in their orisons and masses they were all three esteemed as founders. And from this time it became a priory of friars preachers, and the priors were always nominated by the lords of the dominion of Thetford, to which the Earl annexed the patronage, and confirmed by the superiour of their order; Mr. Weaver tells us (fn. 6) that it was dedicated to St. Sepulchre, but he confounds it with the priory of canons of that order, whose site joined to the west side of the site of this house, for the dedication was not altered, but continued, as he himself rightly observes in the preceding page, to the Holy Trinity and St. Mary. In 1347, the site of Domus Dei, or God's-House, which stood between their cloister and the High-street, and all that then belonged to it, was given them by Henry Duke of Lancaster, the patron, (fn. 7) and then they cleared the site of it, except the Hospital-House only, and made an opening from the street to their monastery, placing a brother or two in the hospital, who daily begged what he could of the passengers, for the profit of the house; and from this time the monastery itself was as often called the Priory of Maison Dien, Domus Dei, or God's-House, as it was the Preachers, Dominicans, or Black Friars. Not long after this, part of the old revenues of Domus Dei, which had been formerly settled on the canons, (fn. 8) were assigned towards the maintenance of these friars, but so that they received it at the hands of the Prior of that house. In 1359, the advowson was settled by fine, to pass with the dominion of Thetford. In 1370, they had purchased all the houses between their convent and the street, and had license from the King to enlarge their house, and pull down those they had purchased, and now their monastery became spacious and open, there being nothing but a court between the street and cloister, for the old hospital-house of Domus Dei, which stood at the very corner, by the river, did not hinder their view, and could the monks have done this, it is to be presumed they would never have removed hence. They had divers small tithes in Suffolk and elsewhere, which they hired of the Abbot of Albemarle and others.

In 1381, being the 5th of Richard II. there was an act which sets forth, "That there were dibers ebil persons within the realm, going from countie to countie, and from towne to towne in certain under dissimulation of great holines, and without the license of the ordinaries of the places, or other sufficient authoritie, preaching dailie, not onlie in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, feirs, and other open places, where a great congregation of people is, dibers semons conteining heresies, tc. and matters of sclaunder, to engender discorde and dissention betwirt dibers estates of the realme, as well spirituall as temporall, tc. [wherefore] It was ordeyned and assented to in Parliament, that the King's commissions should be made, and directed to the shiriffes, tc. to arrest all such preachers, and also their faitours, mainteinours, and abettors, and to holde them in arrest and strong prison, 'till then would justifie them, according to the lawe and reason of holie church." Upon this, the friars of this order, whose habit these preachers had taken upon them, kept themselves close in their monasteries, and did not go so much about as usual, and in a few years after, they thought it necessary to get the privileges of their order confirmed by the King, to shew they were not the persons the King might think them to be, but that they desired to live, and have their order protected by him; and among others, in the year 1386, being the 10th of the King's reign, the Prior and Convent here obtained a confirmation of the privileges of their order, and in particular, that no other order of begging friars should inhabit within a certain distance of their monastery, and this the King undertook to defend them in, against all men. The reason of their procuring this grant was, because John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster, their patron, was a great favourer of the Austin friars, and they feared least they should be expulsed from their monastery, to make room for them, or else that he would found them a monastery in this part of the town, which would have been prejudicial to them, by taking off good part of the alms of the passengers, as well as by being in more repute, their order having not fully recovered the favour they had lost since the aforesaid act; but however, though it is certain the King did not like them, he thought it best not to disturb the order, but confirm the privileges to such as applied for his confirmation: and upon this, the Duke, who was resolved to introduce the Austin friars here, placed them at the further end of the town, as far off the preachers as he possibly could, and so far as not to be within the space limited by the King's privilege. In 1471, the Prior and Convent of friars preachers had liberty of free-warren allowed them in all their lands in Norfolk and Suffolk; Weaver tells us, (fn. 9) it was valued at the Dissolution at 39l. 6s. 9d. and makes the friars preachers and black friars two distinct houses, when they were in reality the same. The Bishop having nothing to do in confirming the priors, I meet with few of their names. I have seen a writing (fn. 10) under the common seal of this house, by which brother Peter Oldman, D.D. Prior of the convent of the friars preachers at Thetford, admitted Thomas Hurton and Margery his wife, to be secular brethren of the convent, and to partake of their prayers and devotions while alive, and of their masses when dead, in as ample a manner as the rest of the friars of the house, and that they might, by the grant of Pope Innocent VIII. granted to this order, choose their own confessor when and where they pleased; and it is plain that they had chosen him by the absolution indorsed on the instrument, which is dated at Thetford, 1st. Jun. 1475. It was surrendered to King Henry VIII. the Prior and five brethren signing the surrender, though I suppose there were a greater number in the monastery that would not consent to it. Withis tells us the church of the Dominicans at Thetford was 36 paces long; (fn. 11) it was granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston, by the name of the site of the friars preachers, formerly called the Hospital-House of God in Thetford, who was to hold it in capite of the Queen, by the service of the 20th part of a fee, and 5d. ob. per annum rent. He left it to his heiress, and it descended to Sir Edward Clere, who sold it with the Canons farm, to which it now [1738] belongs.

Weaver tells us (fn. 12) these persons of distinction were buried here, viz. Arfast Bishop of Thetford, (fn. 13) Sir John Bret, Knt. Dame Agnes Hovell, Dame Maud Talbot, wife to Peter lord of Rickinghall, and Dame Anastasia, wife of Sir Richard Walsingham; besides these, I find the following persons (who were all benefactors) interred in this church. (fn. 14) Sir Thomas Hertford, Knt. in 1370. 1419, 24 Feb. Tho. Walter of Thefford, he gave 13s. 4d. to the friars, to St. Cuthbert's high altar 6s. 8d. to the canons 6s. 8d. and 20d. to every separate canon, to Corpus Christi gild (fn. 15) 6s. 8d. to St. Mary's gild 6s. 8d. to the nuns 13s. 4d. to the Austin friars 6s. 8d. to the Prior of the monks 6s. 8d. to Will. Bernham, a monk, 20d. to Jeffery the monk 20d. to every other monk 12d. to every priest that will come to his burial 4d. and 20s. to be divided among the poor on his burial day, for his soul's good, and 10s. every year on his anniversary as long as his goods would last; to the hermit at Neubrigge (in Ickburgh) 12d. and 8 marks for John Roos and John Northwold, chaplains, to sing for his soul. In 1477, Elizabeth, wife of Roger Oldman, (mother, I suppose, to the then prior,) was buried in the church, and gave a legacy to the light of the Virgin Mary, which burned before her image in it. John Austyn, rector of Wangford, in 1416, gave 40s. to build a perke (fn. 16) in this church. In 1494, John Lord Scroop of Bolton died at EastHerling, (fn. 17) and was buried here, as was William Skepper, in 1499.

Benefactors to this house were, Sir William Berdewelle, the elder, about 1455. John Elingham of Fersfield, in 1478. John Fyschere, burgess, in 1499. Robert Wyset of Barton by Mildenhall, who in 1504 gave a legacy to the brethren of St. Dominick's order in Thetford, to celebrate placebo, dirige, and mass of requiem, and 10 masses in their church, for 10 days next following his decease. William Onge of Hepworth, in 1516, and Will. Keye of Garboldesham in 1531, who settled lands to find a brother of this house, to preach every Easter Tuesday, in St. John's church at Garboldesham. (fn. 18)

In 1504, 12 March, the Bishop licensed Brother Tho. Cross to be a penitentiary throughout his whole diocese, and to preach wherever he would, with an indulgence of 40 days pardon to all that would assist him; and this he did out of love and respect to Master Driver.

2. Of the Augustine, Or Austin Friars.

The Austin Friars, Friars Eremites or Hermits, the Mendicants, or Begging Friars of the New House, (for by all these names I find them called,) were introduced here about the 11th of Richard II. (1387,) by John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster, who much favoured the order. He built them a church and convent, or cloister, on its south side, on part of the old entrenchments of the Castle-Hill, which was demean of his lordship, to which he annexed the patronage of the house; I do not find he gave any other lands besides the site, and the chapel or church of St. John, which they turned into a house for lepers, (fn. 19) (fn. 20) governed by one of their brethren; and by this means they got a place to beg in, at the entrance of the town this way, and in some measure defeated the privilege of the friars preachers, that no other order of begging friars should inhabit within a certain distance of their monastery, upon which account the Duke was forced to place the monastery as far off the preachers as he possibly could. (fn. 21) Mr. Weaver tells us, (fn. 22) it was founded by John of Gaunt, and Blanch his wife, though he says, that some said by Henry Earl of Lancaster, father of the said Blanch, for which there is no ground at all. In 1389, Tho. de Morle, Knt. and others, aliened to the brothers heremits of St. Austin in Thetford, one messuage, and four acres of land, with tenements in Hengham, Aldebye, Hockering, Swanton, Folsham, and Buxton. The tenement in Thetford paid 12d. per annum to St. Mary's gild or college, (fn. 23) and was annexed to the house by license of Richard II. (fn. 24) In 1407, they had possession of another house which stood between the street and site of the monastery, for immediately after, they obtained license of the King to pull it down and enlarge the site of the church and monastery, (fn. 25) and then built a hermitage at the west end of the church, which faced the street, where they continually received alms. In 1412, they had license to hold in mortmain a messuage, chapel, (fn. 26) and hermitage in Thetford and Bernham, with a fair thereto belonging. (fn. 27) In 1469, by an indulgence dated at Thetford, brother John Potch, Prior of this house, and Provincial of the order of the friars hermites, of St. Augustine in England, admitted Thomas Hurton and Margery his wife to be full partakers of all the masses and other devotions performed by the order in England, in as ample a manner as the brethren of the order partake thereof, further adding of his special favour, that as soon as their deaths should be declared in their provincial chapter, that the same offices should be performed for them, as for their deceased brethren. The seal of his office is said to hang to it, but it is now lost; the instrument is neatly written, illuminated, and signed at bottom, Prior Potche. (fn. 28)

Mr. Weaver tells us (fn. 29) this house was valued at the Dissolution at 312l. 15s. 4d. which is a grand mistake, and whence he could imagine so I cannot guess; I am certain it never had many revenues more than are already mentioned, and cannot think it was ever endowed to the value of 20l. a year; the monastery was a very small one, and never had above 6 brethren; the church was not larger than an ordinary parish church, as may be seen by the foundations, which are still visible in the close called the Friar's Close: it consisted of a nave only, two transepts, and a choir, and there do not appear to have been many persons buried in it, for in digging cross we discovered not more than two or three graves; and indeed at the Dissolution, it had no more revenues, that I can see, than those already mentioned, otherwise than Pitt-Mill, which they held by lease of the Abbot or Prior of the monks here. Its surrender lies in the Augmentation Office, and has no seal; and though it is said, in the common form, to be sealed with the common seal, I believe this house never had one, which I conjecture, not only because I never saw it, but because the priors used to subscribe their own hands to their instruments, which was not usual where they had a seal. The 27th Sept. 30 Henry VIII. Ao 1538, Nicholas Prat, Prior of the priory of the Austin friars in Thetford, and the convent of the said place, surrendered their monastery, church, and hermitage, with St. John's chapel, &c. into the King's hands; the instrument was signed by the Prior, Brother Thomas Parmyter, and Brother Roger Schyrwood. It was afterwards granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston, who died seized of the house and site of the late priory of the Austin friars, and the land thereto adjoining and belonging, with one acre surrounded with a stone wall, 10 acres in Barnham, the chapel called St. John's chapel in Thetford-Field, a piece of land near the Market-Sted, and 2d. ob. yearly rent in Barnham, all which belonged to the said house, and were held of the Queen in capite, by the service of a 20th part of a fee, and 1s. 9d. yearly rent. (fn. 30)

The benefactors were, Dame Margery, (fn. 31) daughter of Sir Tho. Jenney, first wife of Sir John Herling, and after that of Sir John Tuddenham, Knt.; she was buried in the chancel of the Austin friars church in Thetford, close by the tomb of her daughter, Dame Elizabeth, late wife of Sir Thomas Hengrave, to whose son Edmund she left a legacy, and another to the church. (fn. 32) In 1599, William Fyschere, burgess, gave them a legacy. In 1504, Robert Wyset of Berton by Mildenhall, gave them 10s. to sing placebo, dirige, and mass of requiem, and other masses for him at his death. In 1515, Robert Wyxle of Hildercle was a benefactor. In 1526, there were legacies given for masses to be said at a place called Scala Cœli, in the friarsAustins in Thetford. (fn. 33) In 1531, William Keye of Garboldesham, and many others, gave them small sums to sing for their souls; and indeed, the chief of their subsistence must be from what they begged, and from such legacies as were given them. This monastery was on the Norfolk side, by the Market-street, in the enclosure called the Friars-Close.


  • 1. See chap. xv.
  • 2. See p. 50.
  • 3. See Hist. Norf. fol. 192.
  • 4. This order of begging friars was confirmed in 1220; they went in a white coat, with a black cope and cowl. Becon. fol. 317.
  • 5. See p. 54.
  • 6. Fol. 828.
  • 7. See p. 80.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Fo. 827.
  • 10. Autog. in Cista Feofator. Parochiæ Sci. Jacobi de Icklingham in Suff.
  • 11. Willis's Collections, vol. ii. p. 330. addenda.
  • 12. Fol. 827, 828.
  • 13. See p. 49.
  • 14. Regr. Heydon, fol. 16. a.
  • 15. This seems to be kept in St. Mary's college, and to be sustained by the Corporation.
  • 16. This is either a rood loft, or a pedestal for some image to stand on. He was buried in the college.
  • 17. See vol. i. p. 321.
  • 18. See vol. i. p. 273.
  • 19. I imagine he was prior here.
  • 20. See p. 72.
  • 21. See p. 5.
  • 22. Fol. 828.
  • 23. See p. 82.
  • 24. Pat. 13 R. 2. part i. m. 16.
  • 25. Pat 9 Henry 4. part 2 m. 24.
  • 26. This was St. John's chapel and hermitage, which they got confirmed to them by Henry V. when he came to the dominion, and then it had a fair belonging to it, which is now disused.
  • 27. Pat. 1 H 5. par. 1. m. 19.
  • 28. Autog. penes Feofat. Paroch. Sci. Jacobi de Icklingham in Suff.
  • 29. Fol. 828.
  • 30. Inquis. post mort. Rici. Fulmerston, mil. 9° Eliz.
  • 31. See vol. i. p. 319; she is often called Margaret, but having lately seen her will, find her name was Margery.
  • 32. See vol. i. p. 331.
  • 33. Regr. Groundesburgh, fol. 236.