Thetford, chapter 19: Of the Nunnery

Pages 89-91

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

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Chapter XIX.


This monastery was the oldest of any in the town, for it was originally founded by Uvius the first Abbot of Bury, in the time of King Cnute, in memory of the English and Danes that were slain not far off, (fn. 1) in the great battle between King Edmund, and the Danish captains, Ingwar and Ubba; it was placed just by the church of St. George, which Cnute had given to his abbey at Bury, (fn. 2) but upon the land that Earl Turkil gave to that monastery; in this house the Abbot placed a few canons or monks, (fn. 3) who held it as a cell to the abbey, and officiated in the church of St. George, which was then a parish church: and from this time the canons continued here, till at last they were reduced to two only, and their revenues being almost dissipated, they requested Hugh Abbot of Bury, their patron, by the intercession of John of Oxford Bishop of Norwich, Jeffery Ridel Archdeacon of Canterbury, Keeper of the King's seal, and William de Camera, (or Chambers,) then Sheriff of Norfolk, and Suffolk, that the nuns, which then lived by the chapel of St. Edmund at Lyng in Norfolk, might be removed hither; and accordingly, about 1176, (fn. 4) the two canons resigned all their possessions into the hands of the aforesaid Abbot, who immediately granted them to the nuns of Lyng, who afterwards removed hither, into the monastery that Abbot Hugh built for them, who by this means became their founder, and gave them the church of St. George, which he also rebuilt, (fn. 5) and from a parochial, made it their conventual church; besides this, he assigned them the parish churches of St. Benedict, and All-Saints, and got the Bishop to appropriate them to the monastery, with all other lands, immunities, and privileges, that the Abbots of Bury ever had in the burgh of Thetford, by means whereof this monastery, with all its lands and revenues, were totally exempt from all jurisdiction of the burgh, (fn. 6) and enjoyed the liberties and privileges of St. Edmund their patron, even to its dissolution. But least we should mistake as to the founder, I must observe that it was that Hugh who was first Prior of Westminster, and was elected Abbot of Bury in 1157, and confirmed by the Bishop of Winchester: he governed the abbey 24 years, and died 17 kal. December, in the year 1180. (fn. 7) The next addition that I meet with, as to the revenues, was made by Maud Countess of Norfolk and Warren, (fn. 8) eldest sister and one of the coheirs of Anselme Mareschal-Earl of Pembroke, who first married Hugh Bygod Earl of Norfolk, and afterwards became second wife to William Earl Warren, after whose death, in 1240, she became a great favourer of these nuns, and among other testimonies to shew her love to the monastery, she granted an annual rent of three marks out of her mill by her manor-house in Cestreford (or Chesterford) in Essex, towards finding the nuns clothing for ever; Sir Roger Bygod Earl of Norfolk, Sir Ralf Bigod, Sir William de Hengham, Sir Osbert de Caily, and others, being witnesses to it; she died in 1247, so that the deed must be made before that time. In 1286, Sir Peter de Melding, Knt. gave to God and the nuns of St. George in Thetford, a yearly rent of 5s. out of his tenements in Norwich, for the health of his soul, and the soul of Joan his wife. (fn. 9) In 1359 there was a change made between the Prioress and Prior of the monks of Thetford, whereby divers lands in Rougham were settled on the nunnery, and other lands and a mill on the prior. In 1375, the King granted license, that they might appropriate the church of St. Peter and Paul, at Little-Livermere in Suffolk, to their house, that church being then a rectory in their patronage, but the Bishop not consenting, it was not done. In 1400, the jury, on a writ of ad quod damnum, returned answer, that it would be no prejudice to the King, if Nicholas Wichingham settled on the convent one messuage, 110 acres of land, two of meadow, four of pasture, a free foldcourse, and two free fisheries, in the waters and fields in Bernham in Suffolk, opon which, it was settled by the King's license. In 1416, John Austin, rector of Wangford, who was buried in the college, gave them a legacy. In 1438, there was a long suit between the Lady Alice Wesenham, Prioress of this house, and Rob. Popy, then rector of Lyng, (fn. 10) by which it appears, that when the nuns first removed from Lyng, they were endowed with a messuage in which they dwelt, close by the chapel of St. Edmund in Lyng, which solely belonged to them, together with 60 acres of land, and 3 acres of meadow, adjoining to their house, with annual rents, amounting to 5s. 9d. and two hens, all which was held in capite of the Crown, and was enjoyed by the nuns, from the time they left it, who received the profits, and paid a chaplain, (who is sometimes called the Prior of St. Edmund's Chapel) with part of the revenues, but for many years past, the Prioress had let all to the rector of Lyng, who served in the chapel, and received an annual rent for the premises, upon which this rector claimed only to pay that rent, refusing to acknowledge any further right belonging to the Prioress; but after a long suit, and the Prioress's recovery, he was glad to come to a composition, and accordingly this year the King licensed the Prioress to convey the chapel and all the premises, to the said Robert Popy, rector of Lyng, and his successours for ever, on condition that he and his successours shall for ever pay a clear annual pension of 4 marks a year to the Prioress, and her successours for ever, which was constantly paid to the Dissolution. In 1499, William Fyshere, burgess, was a benefactor, with many others, (fn. 11) whose names I do not meet with; they had many revenues in Rowdham, Bury, and other towns, both in Norfolk and Suffolk, as appears by their certificate returned to King Henry VI. when he taxed all the religious, except the poor nuns and such other houses as were in decay, for they certified, that the revenues of their monastery in Hingham and Thetford deaneries in Norfolk, and in Thetford, Thingo, and Clare deaneries in Suffolk, were much decayed by the late mortality, and those in Cranwich deanery, by inundations, and had continued so ever since the year 1349, upon which they were excused from the tax. Dugdale values this monastery at 40l. 11s. 2d. Speed at 50l. 9s. 8d. which was the value returned at its suppression, but far under the clear annual income; for besides their monastery, divers messuages, barns, stalls, dove-houses, orchards, water-stews, ponds, common of pasture, waters, fishings, liberty of free-warren, &c. they had no less than 4 bovates, or oxgangs, and half a carucate, or ploughtilth of land, in Thetford only.

The patronage always belonged to the abbey of Bury, and at every vacancy, the Sub-prioress sent to the Abbot for license to elect a new Prioress, and after they had elected one, they returned their election to the Abbot, who thereupon directed his letters of confirmation to the Bishop of Norwich, to admit the person elected, and if the Abbot refused to grant either license or confirmation, it lapsed to the Bishop; so that though the house was exempt from the jurisdiction of the burgh, it was not from that of the Bishop, who would have the same power over it that he had over St. George's church when it was parochial, otherwise he would not have suffered them to have made it conventual.


  • 1. Between the monastery and Euston, near Tut-Hill, see p. 39, 40.
  • 2. See p. 73.
  • 3. Cartulary of Bury, fol. 20.
  • 4. John of Oxford was consecrated Dec. 14, 1175. Abbot Hugh died 1180.
  • 5. See p. 74.
  • 6. See p. 71.
  • 7. Dug. Bar. vol. i. fol. 77.
  • 8. Dug. Mon. vol. i. fol 295.
  • 9. This deed is enrolled in the Court of the City of Norwich.
  • 10. Regr. Curteys, fol. 299.
  • 11. In 1511, Robert Love, burgess, gave to the friars Austins, friars preachers, and the nuns, 20s. each.