Friaries: Thetford

Pages 433-435

A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.

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The Friar Preachers were not established at Thetford until the year 1335, an unusually late date for the founding of a house of any of the mendicant orders. The church of St. Marythe-Great of Thetford, on the Suffolk side of the town, which was for a time the cathedral church of East Anglia, had remained desolate, with its unfinished Cluniac cloister, for two centuries, when Henry earl of Lancaster gave the site of the church and convent to the Dominicans. The king confirmed this grant to the friars on 20 July, 1335. (fn. 1) Three years later the Earl of Surrey gave them a plot of land 300 ft. by 30 ft. to enlarge their homestead. (fn. 2) In 1347 Henry earl of Lancaster, the son of the founder, granted the site of the Domus Dei, which stood between their cloister and the High Street, which they were to maintain, and hence this friars' house was often termed the priory of the Maison-Dieu or God's House, or else the priory of the Old House. (fn. 3)

By an exceptional arrangement the priors of the Thetford Dominicans were always nominated by the lords of Thetford; in 1359 the advowson was definitely settled by fine thus to pass with the domain. (fn. 4)

A plot of land 300 ft. by 16 ft. was given to the friars by Thomas Franceys for the further extension of their premises, and on his death in 1369 they were called to account for having occupied it without licence; however, the royal pardon for this irregularity was soon forthcoming. (fn. 5)

A fire in this house, in the year 1410, destroyed the original deed of grant of Henry earl of Lancaster, but the grant was renewed by his grandson, Henry IV. (fn. 6)

On 6 November, 1386, Richard II granted royal confirmation of the privilege that no other order of mendicant friars should have houses founded or built within 300 cannae (about a third of a mile) of their house. (fn. 7) The reason of the Dominicans moving in this matter was the knowledge that John of Gaunt, their own patron, was a great friend of the Austin Friars, and they dreaded lest he should establish them near by and thus interfere with the alms of passengers entering the town by the London road. (fn. 8) In the following year the duke did introduce the Augustinians, but placed them as far as possible from the Dominicans on the opposite side of the town.

Boniface IX, on 4 February, 1393, granted to all devout visitors to the Friars Preachers of the Holy Trinity, Thetford, on the principal feasts, who assisted in its maintenance, an indulgence of two years and two quarantines. (fn. 9)

In 1424 the friars granted to William Curteys, prior of Bury St. Edmunds, and his brethren the use of the best chamber of this house, called the 'common recreatory,' which was henceforth to be termed St. Edmund's House; they were to occupy it as they liked, but not to grant or alienate it without the consent of the friars. This must have been a great convenience to the abbey of St. Edmunds, as it held the patronage and was responsible for the lands of the adjacent nunnery of St. George. (fn. 10)

Father Palmer gives a long list of bequests to these Dominicans, and of those who found burial within its church, extending from 1347 to 1553. (fn. 11)

This religious house was destroyed in 1538, but the month and the day in the deed of surrender are left blank. The surrender was signed by Richard Cley, prior, and five other friars. (fn. 12)

Priors Of The Dominican Friars Of Thetford (fn. 13)

Robert de Berton, occurs 1371

John Wauney, occurs 1386

Peter Oldman, occurs 1475

Master Dryver, occurs 1505

Richard Cley, occurs 1535


The Austin Friars were brought to Thetford about 1387 by John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, who was a great patron of the order. The founder built for them, on Castle Hill, at the entrance to the town, a church with conventual buildings on the south side. In addition to the site he gave them the old church or chapel of St. John on the western side of the town, which they repaired and used as a chapel for the leper hospital there, under the rule of one of their brethren. They also held, by the founder's gift, thirty-six acres of land in Thetford and Barsham, and the profit of the fair of St. John Baptist. (fn. 14)

They had a small grant of lands and tenements in Hengham, Aldeby, and other Norfolk townships, in 1389, from Sir Thomas de Morle and other donors. In 1392 a tenement in Thetford that paid 12d. a year to the gild of St. Mary's was annexed to the friars. (fn. 15)

There was a house standing between their priory and the street, and in 1408 they obtained the crown licence to pull it down and enlarge the site of their church and cloister, and to build a hermitage at the west end of the church, adjoining the street, where they received alms. (fn. 16)

In 1413 Henry V granted licence to hold in mortmain a messuage chapel and hermitage, with a fair on the west or St. John's side of Thetford. (fn. 17)

Margaret, wife of Sir John Puddenham, was buried in the church of the Austin Friars in 1411, by the tomb of her daughter, Elizabeth Hengrave; she left 40s. to the priory.

John Potche was prior of this house, and English provincial of the order in the time of Edward IV. In 1469 he admitted Thomas Hurton and his wife Margaret to be full partakers of all the masses and other devotions of the order throughout England, and that at their deaths the same offices should be performed for them as for their deceased brethren.

Martin enumerated several small bequests made by will to the Austin Friars during the last part of the sixteenth century.

On 26 September, 1538, Thetford was visited by John Hilsey, the ex-Dominican friar whom Henry VIII had made bishop of Rochester, and in whom he found a ready tool for the suppression of the friars. In a letter to Cromwell from Thetford on the following day he stated that he had found 'the Austin friars so bare that there was no earthly thing at all but trash and baggage.' He therefore at once proceeded to discharge them from their house and take their surrender. He apologised to the Lord Privy Seal for meddling with this house and that of the Dominicans without express order, 'but they were so far gone that if they had continued all had been spoiled.' (fn. 18) The house was afterwards named in a list of those friaries which had no lead on the roofs, save the gutters. (fn. 19)

The surrender into the king's hand of their house, church, hermitage, and chapel of St. John, was signed by Nicholas Pratt, prior, and Thomas Parmynter and Roger Shyrwodd, two of the brethren. (fn. 20) This was always a small house, the full complement of friars being only six.

The site of their house and their poor possessions were granted to Sir Richard Fulmerston. (fn. 21)


  • 1. Pat. 9 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 26.
  • 2. Ibid. 12 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 7.
  • 3. Ibid. 22 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 33. See the subsequent account under the hospitals of Thetford.
  • 4. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. ii, 84.
  • 5. Pat. 43 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 17.
  • 6. Grants of Duchy of Lanc, xiv, fol. 45.
  • 7. Pat. 10 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 3; canna is a clothyard.
  • 8. Reliquary (new. ser.), i, 199; Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. ii, 85.
  • 9. Cal. Papal Reg. iv, 450.
  • 10. Cott. MS. Claud. A. 12.
  • 11. Reliquary (new ser.), 200-2.
  • 12. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. 2, 34.
  • 13. Reliquary (new ser.), 203-4.
  • 14. Martin, Hist. of Thetford (1779), 195-202; Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. ii, 87; Dugdale, Mon. vi, 1595.
  • 15. Pat. 13 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 16.
  • 16. Pat. 9 Hen. IV, pt. ii, m. 24.
  • 17. Ibid. 1 Hen. V, pt. i, m. 19.
  • 18. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 167.
  • 19. Ibid. 480.
  • 20. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. 2, 44.
  • 21. Mins. Accts. 32 Hen. VIII, pt. ii, Norf.