Prioresses : Of the Monastery of the Benedictine or black nuns of St. George in Thetford

Pages 91-95

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

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1310, 7 kal. March, the Bishop, in the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, in Theford, examined the election made in the monastery of St. George at Theford, as it were by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, concerning the person of the Lady Ellen de Berdewell, a nun of that monastery, who then was unanimously elected prioress, which election, though as to the form, it was found defective, yet by the special favour of the Bishop, the fitness and morals of the person being considered, she was confirmed prioress there, and had all the spirituals and temporals belonging to the house committed to her management, and letters were directed to the archdeacon of the place, or his official, commanding him to install her into her office.

1329, 6 id. Jan. the Lady Margaret Bretoun, a nun here, was installed prioress.

1330, id. June, the Lady Beatrice de Lystone, a nun of this house, was installed prioress, at the death of Margaret Bretoun.

1339, 13 April, the Lady Dametta de Bakethorp, nun here was installed prioress, at Beatrice de Lyston's death. In 1343, Aune, daughter of Sir John Furneaux, Knt. lord of Middle-Herling, became a professed nun here. In 1390 Lady Dametta de Bakethorp, or Bagthorp, was grown so very old and decrepit, that she resigned her office nto the hands of Elizabeth Jenny, then third prioress of the house, and president, who called the nuns together, declared the resignation, and sent for a license for a new election.

1390, 24 Octob. the Lady Margaret Campleon, sub-prioress, was installed prioress; she resigned in 1418.

1418, 1 August, the Lady Margaret Chykering, senior, was presented to the Bishop, in the church of St. Etheldred at Theford, and was admitted prioress, being chose into that office by Lady Elen Hardyngham, sub-prioress, Lady Margaret Campleon, late prioress, Lady Julian Bluton, third prioress, Lady Alice Howard, Lady Agnes Rokelond, nuns, Lady Margaret Chykering, junior, refectoress, Lady Alice Wesenham, infirmaress, Lady Cecily Wychingham, and Lady Lucy Ixworth, nuns, being the whole number belonging to the house; upon which she had letters for installation.

1420, 27 Novem. Lady Alice Wesenham was installed prioress, at Margaret Chickering's death.

1466, Lady Margaret Copyng, (or Margery Copinger,) nun here, was installed prioress on Wesenham's resignation.

1477, 10 Decem. Lady Joan Eyton, nun here, was elected by all the nuns, and installed prioress at the resignation of Margaret Copyng.

1498, 15 Septem. Lady Eliz. Mownteneye, nun here, was installed prioress at the death of Joan Eyton. She died 20th April, 1518, and was buried in the church of Banham, by her ancestors. (fn. 1)

1518, Lady Eliz. Gournay was installed prioress.

1519, 8 June, the Bishop collated the Lady Sarah Frost, a nun of this house, who was installed prioress at the death of Elizabeth Gournay. At her admission she was sworn to alien nothing, and not to make any new feoffments to the damage of the monastery, which was now in a declining state, by such former alienations. It was forced to be a collation, because there were not a sufficient number of nuns to have an election.

1534, Dame Eliz. Hothe, alias Heath, was installed, and was the last prioress, being a person of sincerity and resolution, for they could never bring her to resign her house, from which she had sworn to alien nothing; and indeed it is particular, that none of the nuns are accused of any thing, but Margaret Legget. (fn. 2) Joan Thompson was sub-prioress when it was seized into the King's hands in 1536, and a pension of 5l. per annum settled on the prioress. In 1553, it was thus returned, "Eliz. Hooth, of the age of an hundredth years, and now dwelling in the parish of St. James in Norwich, prioress of the late priory of Thetford, liveth continentlie, and hath a pention of 5l. paid her yearly, at Norwich and Bury, at two terms in the year by even portions, and hath nothing to live upon but the same pention, and is reputed a good and catholick woman." (fn. 3)

"And Robert Howse of Thetford, priest, lately a religious man of Bury, hath a pention of 8l. by letters patents, 31 Henry VIII. he was married, and is now divorced."

Most authors that have treated of this monastery, (fn. 4) have been mistaken as to its dedication, and so call it St. Gregory instead of St. George, and also in making it granted to the Duke of Norfolk, which it never was, the scite of the monastery of Thetford not meaning this, as they imagine, but the abbey; for in 1537, the King leased the site of the nuns in Thetford to Richard Fulmerston of Ipswich, Gent. (fn. 5) for 21 years, at the yearly rent of 2l. 3s. 4d. per annum, and in 1540 he had an absolute grant of it, and all the lands belonging to it, with a fold-course for 300 sheep in Bodesling, and a field of arable land called Campfield in Thetford, with other revenues in Fouldon, &c. all which were held of the King by knight's service. Sir Richard left it to Frances, his daughter and heir, who married Sir Edw. Clere (fn. 6) of Bickling in Norfolk, Knt. and at his death it descended to Sir Edw. Clere, his eldest son and heir, who held it by the twentieth part of a knight's fee; he was knighted at Norwich, August 22, 1578, (fn. 7) when Queen Elizabeth went her progress into those parts, and next year was sheriff of Norfolk, and was afterwards a great traveller, being in such esteem in the French court, that he was made a knight of the French order of St. Michael, (fn. 8) but affecting much grandeur, he by degrees consumed his inheritance, and was forced to sell his chief seat at Blicking, to Sir Henry Hobart, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, in the reign of King James I. His eldest son, Hen. Clere of Ormsby, Esq. to whom he assigned that ancient family seat, was created a baronet, 27th Feb. 1620, 18th James I. but dying without issue the title ceased in this family. As for the monastery, Sir Edward first mortgaged it to Mr. Godsalve of Bokenham-Ferry in Norfolk, with whom it was afterwards exchanged for that manor. (fn. 9) Mr. Godsalve put it over, among other lands, to Mr. John Smith and Owen Shepherd; they had a long and chargeable suit about Mr. Godsalve's estate, and sold the monastery to Sir William Campion, and it is enjoyed by his descendant, Henry Campion, Esq. the present [1738] owner.

At the Dissolution, this monastery did not suffer so much as the generality of them did; the church was a large one, and when Sir Rich. Fulmerston came to dwell here, it was turned into lodgings, and other convenient rooms; Sir Edward Clere new regulated the western front of the house, and opened a passage into the road, after which it assumed the present name of the Place; but the whole monastery remained till the year 1737, without much alteration, their common-hall, vaults, butteries, &c. being the same as when the nuns left them, except their pavement, which was new laid with gravestones, when the church was demolished; their private chapel was whole and entire, the reading-desk, partition at the altar, and gallery for the nuns remained; in it were three large coffin-stones, with crosses on them, no doubt but they were laid over some of the prioresses, who were here interred; it was a crypt, or vault, arched over with fine strong arches, and had only a handsome large east window over the altar. The church itself is now [1738] standing, being used for a barn, and the font that came out of it lies still in the court-yard. The monastery is now quite demolished, and a new farm-house built by its site. I saw several pieces of stone coffins and monuments, some with arms on them, and some without, besides divers parts of images, which had been formerly painted, taken out of the ruins. The chest in which the nuns evidences were kept stood lately in the Long Gallery or Ambulatory, which was a fine room, of a great length, extending through the whole building, facing the court on the north side, the west window surveyed the fields, and the east their pleasant grove, fish-ponds, and river: it had two or three chimneys on the south side, and a fine view all the way up the river to Bernhum; but this was spoiled by the small lodging rooms that were made the whole length of it in Sir Edward's time. In this gallery they pretended to shew you the blood of an unhappy youth who was here slain by a fall from a wooden horse that he used to vault or ride on, which, they tell you, Sir Richard was designedly the cause of, by having the pins of one of the wheels taken out for that purpose, in order that at his death he might enjoy his estate, and this is the occasion of the frightful stories among the vulgar of that knight's appearing so often, to the terrour of many; but it is mere fiction, for the spots on the wall were nothing more than is seen in many plasterings.

The rise indeed of this story is too true, though the additions made to it are false, for it was no manner of interest to Sir Richard to be the author of such a villainy, he never enjoying any part of the estate of the person killed. The truth is, Thomas Lord Dacre, who died in 1565, was survived by Elizabeth his wife, second daughter of Sir James Leiburne, Knt. who after his decease married Thomas Duke of Norfolk, by means whereof the Duke became guardian to George Dacre Lord of Gillesland and Graystock, who was then a minor, being only son and heir to Thomas Lord Dacre, his lady's first husband: this youth was with the Duke at Thetford a good while, who finding the air and place agreed with him, committed him to the care of Sir Richard Fulmerston, his intimate acquaintance, with whom he lived some time; he did what he could to divert the sprightly youth, (fn. 10) with such exercises as were agreeable to his age, and among others, he had a wooden horse in this gallery, for him to vault or ride on; but as he was at his diversion, on the 17th of May, 1569, he fell from it, and beat out his brains, leaving his estate to his three sisters, his heiresses, Mr. Dugdale in his Baronage (fn. 11) says, that he was unhappily killed by the fall of a wooden horse, whereupon he practised to leap.

The invidious part of the story seems to be raised afterwards by Leonard Dacres, next heir-male of the family, or his friends, who did all he could against the young ladies to get the estate from them; but they being all three married to the sous of the same duke, had power and friends sufficient to withstand his unjust designs; and therefore it was given out that Sir Richard did it, in order to make those ladies the better fortunes, for his friend's children. But as this was not so much as surmised till some years after, when Leonard brought his action for the estate, it is to be looked upon as envy, invented only to serve a turn, and make his proceedings appear with a better face.

The first seal is that of Hugh Abbot of Bury, founder of Thetford nunnery; and the second is the common seal of that house.




  • 1. See vol. i. p. 357, 358.
  • 2. Prioratus monalium de Thetford. Margareta Legget fatetur incontinentiam, petunt omnes excnerari, excepta Priorissa.
  • 3. MSS. Regr. Norwic.
  • 4. Weaver, fol. 828. Tanner Not. Mon. &c.
  • 5. He was afterwards knighted, and came and lived here. Autog. in Curia Augment. in Scaccario.
  • 6. Not Clark, as Stephens hath it, and the Atlas, from him.
  • 7. Stephen's additions to the Monasticon, vol. ii. fol. 523. Atlas, p. 415.
  • 8. Baronetage, vol. ii. p. 273.
  • 9. See Sir Henry Spelman's History of Sacrilege, p. 277; edit. Lond. 1698.
  • 10. Dug. Bar. vol. ii. 918.
  • 11. Vol. ii. fol. 24: Ao Domini 1569, 17 Maij, objit Georgius Dacre, Dominus de Gillesland et Graystok, puer magnæ spei et optimæ indolis, ex casu equi lignei saltatorij, repentine corruit Thetfordiæ in com. Norf. infra ætatem, tum existente in custodia Thomæ Ducis Norfolciæ.