Houses of Austin canons: Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford

Pages 109-111

A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.

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Thetford was in the hands of Stephen in 1139. Soon after this date the king gave all the lands and advowsons on the Suffolk side of the river, both within and without the borough, to William de Warenne, the third earl of Warenne and Surrey. Immediately after he had received this grant, the earl founded a monastery on that side of Thetford for canons of the order of St. Sepulchre, of the Austin rule, which order had been introduced into England about 1120. By the foundation charter the earl bestowed on the canons the church of St. Sepulchre, with a quadrigate of land in the adjoining fields, together with all the lands, churches, tithes, and manorial rights in Thetford that he had obtained from the king. He further granted them two yearly fairs, namely at the Invention (3 May) and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September). The earl was at this time about to set forth on a crusade, and the concluding sentences of the charter solemnly commend the maintenance of his new foundation to his brother palmers, to the burgesses, and to all his faithful friends. It was witnessed by his brothers Ralph and Reginald. (fn. 1)

Hamelin, Earl Warenne, who married Isabel, the founder's daughter and heir, confirmed this grant, and also gave them a third fair on the festival of the Holy Sepulchre, 20s. in rent, and the tithes of two mills. He died in 1202. William, Earl Warenne, Hamelin's son, gave the canons sixty acres of lands, and 10s. rent out of his mill at Brendmilne. Henry II also gave sixty acres of demesne lands of Thetford to the priory.

Early in the reign of Henry III Sir Geoffrey de Furneaux, lord of Middle Harling, died, and was buried in the priory church by the side of his wife Amy. He gave the canons, for this privilege of sepulture among them, the ninth sheaf of all his demesnes in Bircham (Cambridgeshire) and Middle Harling, together with a messuage and twelve acres of land. About 1250 Alice, wife of Sir Michael Furneaux, a grandson of Sir Geoffrey, was also buried in this church, as well as many subsequent members of the family.

In 1272 William Nunne of Thetford granted to Prior Ralph and the canons a messuage in the town towards procuring habits for the canons, and Thomas de Burgh in 1274 granted the ninth sheaf of his demesne lands in Somerton, Suffolk, and Burgh in Cambridgeshire, in exchange for the advowson of Somerton.

The taxation of 1291 showed that this priory was of the annual value of £20 0s. 1¼d.; it then held possessions in fourteen Norfolk and five Suffolk parishes, in addition to small incomes from the dioceses of Ely and London.

The hospital of God's House, Thetford, was definitely settled on the priory in the year 1347.

In 1331 Edward III licensed the appropriation to the priory of the church of Gresham, the advowson of which had been granted by John, Earl Warenne, in 1281, but the Bishop of Norwich refused his consent. In 1339 the prior and canons appealed to Rome, and Pope Boniface granted them leave to appropriate the revenues on the next vacancy, provided they served it by one of their own canons and paid all episcopal dues. The bishop would not, however, give his consent without the formal ordination of a vicarage.

A survey of this house, taken on 20 December, 1338, shows that the priory held the Thetford churches of SS. Cuthbert, Andrew, Giles, Edmund, Lawrence, and the Holy Trinity, the last two being served by the canons. They also held 293 acres of meadow and arable land in the neighbourhood of Thetford, of the united value of £10 12s. 0½d. They had liberty of one foldcourse in the field of Westwick, wherein they might feed 500 sheep, and might remove those sheep to Brend for change of pasture when the shepherd pleased and had convenience for washing them; also another foldcourse for 320 sheep, and various other pasturage rights for cattle and swine. The total annual value of the priory at the time of this survey was £62 9s.

In 1394 Abbot Cratford, of Bury St. Edmunds, licensed the prior to purchase the tenement called Playforth in Barnham, with its services, rents, foldcourse for 400 sheep, and 133 acres of arable land worth ½d. an acre, of Master Walter of Elveden, who held it of the fee of St. Edmund. For this the prior was to pay a yearly rent to the abbey of 22s., and 2d. on the election of a new abbot. (fn. 2) In 1442 the Earl of Suffolk obtained licence to alienate to the priory 240 acres of arable land, 600 of pasture and heath for foldcourses in Croxton, and a messuage and garden in Thetford, to found a chantry in the conventual church. The prior sued John Legat, rector of Tuddenham, in 1464, for an annual pension of £6 from that church, which he had detained for two years; the prior recovered it by proving that he was always taxed at 12s. tenths for the portion.

When the Valor of 1535 was drawn up the clear annual income was only £39 6s. 8d. This was a great falling-off from the total of 1338; several items of revenue were much reduced, for instance the pension of £6 a year from Tuddenham church stood only at 40s. in the last Valor.

The priory was visited by Archdeacon Goldwell, on behalf of the bishop, on 12 November, 1492. Prior Reginald and seven canons were present; the visitor found that no reform was needed. (fn. 3)

Bishop Nykke visited the house on 21 June, 1514. The record of this visit is incomplete. The prior, Thomas Vicar, said that Canon William Brigges, then at Snoring, was an apostate and of evil life. Richard Skete complained that no one had been appointed sacrist, that the beer was of poor quality, that the prior had returned no account since his appointment, that Stephen Horham, the prior's servant in charge of the dairy, had the spending of the profits of seven or eight cows, that Stephen was married, and he had suspicions as to his wife, and that Stephen had laid violent hands on him. Richard Downham made some like complaints, and also spoke of the bad repair of the buildings and nave of the church, and that there were not sufficient vessels in the kitchen, and that spoons and other silver plate had been pledged. William Kingsmill made like complaints, and said that the prior, whom he considered remiss but not criminal in his conduct, had presented no accounts for seven years. The depositions of Robert Barneham and Thomas Herd were to much the same effect. (fn. 4)

At Bishop Nykke's visitation of June, 1520, only the prior, John Thetford, and three canons were present. The prior stated that the priory buildings were in sad decay, and that the income was not sufficient for their support. Richard Noris said that Thomas Lowthe, the predecessor of the present prior, had taken with him a breviary belonging to the house. (fn. 5)

At the visitation of July, 1526, the prior and five canons were present. Prior Thetford complained of the unpunctuality of the canons at high mass on Sundays and the principal feasts. Nicholas Skete thought the beer was too sweet and weak. (fn. 6)

The last visitation was held in July, 1532, when the prior and three canons were severally examined, and all testified omnia bene so far as the condition of the house permitted. There were also three novices who were professed by the bishop. The bishop enjoined on the prior to see that the newly professed were instructed in grammar. (fn. 7)

Prior John Thetford and six canons subscribed to the royal supremacy in their chapterhouse on 26 August, 1534. In that year Prior Thetford, who had been a canon of Butley, gave to the church of that monastery two chalices, one for the chapel of All Saints and the other for the chapel of St. Sigismund; also two relics, with a silver pix for relics, and a comb of St. Thomas of Canterbury. He resigned the priory of Thetford about the close of 1534, and became prior of Holy Trinity, Ipswich.

Legh and Ap Rice, the notorious visitors of Cromwell, visited this priory towards the end of 1535. According to their comperta Prior Clerk confessed incontinency to these men and his desire to marry; they also reported badly of three others. (fn. 8)

The county commissioners for suppression of this house in 1536 reported that it was of the clear annual value of £44 12s. 10d.; that the lead and bells were worth £80, and the movable goods £29 8s. 7d.; and that the debts owing amounted to £7 1s. 7¼d. The house was 'very Ruynous ande in Decaye.' They found only one religious person there, 'of slendre Reporte who requirythe to have a dispensacione to goo to the Worlde.' The persons who had their living at the house were sixteen—namely, two priests, two hinds, four children, and eight waiting servants. (fn. 9)

Prior Clerk obtained a pension of ten marks. (fn. 10)

The house, site, and possessions were granted in 1537 to Sir Richard Fulmerston.

Priors of Thetford

Richard, (fn. 11) 1202

Gislebert (fn. 12)

William, (fn. 13) 1228

Richard, (fn. 14) 1242

Roger de Kersey, (fn. 15) 1247, died 1273

William, (fn. 16) 1274

Peter de Horsage, (fn. 17) elected 1315

Richard de Wintringham, (fn. 18) elected 1329

John de Shefford, (fn. 19) elected 1338

Roger de Kerseye, (fn. 20) 1347

Robert de Thetford, (fn. 21) 1349

Robert Edwyn, (fn. 22) resigned 1351

Adam de Hokewold, (fn. 23) elected 1351

William de Haneworth, (fn. 24) elected 1358

Adam de Worsted, (fn. 25) elected 1378

Robert de Stowe, (fn. 26) died 1420

John Paltok, (fn. 27) elected 1420

John Grenegras, (fn. 28) elected 1432

Peter Tryon, (fn. 29) elected 1454

Reginald Ilberd, (fn. 30) elected 1471

John Burnell, alias Burham, (fn. 31) 1496

William, (fn. 32) 1503

Thomas Vicar or Lowthe, (fn. 33) occurs 1512

John Thetford, (fn. 34) occurs 1519, 1534

John Clerk, (fn. 35) occurs 1535

The thirteenth-century seal of this priory has under a pinnacled canopy Our Lord rising from the sepulchre, at the head of which is an angel, with two sleeping soldiers in base. Legend:—

. . . . . .ECCLESIE . . . . .D' THETFORD. . . . (fn. 36)

A fine but imperfect impression of a seal 'ad causas' of this house is attached to a charter of 1457. It bears the risen Saviour standing, the right hand raised in benediction, and the left grasping a long cross. In the field, on the left, are the arms of Warenne, chequy; and on the right a crescent and a star. Legend:—

. . . . .HEFO. . . .AD CAVS. . . . . . (fn. 37)


  • 1. There is no known chartulary of this priory. The charter is recited in a confirmation charter of John, Earl Warenne, given in Dugdale, Mon. ii, 574, 'Ex autogr. in bibl. Deuvesiana, a. 1620.' Martin's Hist. of Thetford (1779), 174-95, has a painstaking account of this house; the statements in this sketch are chiefly taken therefrom where no other reference is given.
  • 2. Cott. MS. Tib. B. ix, fol. 30.
  • 3. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Cam. Soc.), 32.
  • 4. Ibid. 88-9.
  • 5. Ibid. 155.
  • 6. Ibid. 242-3.
  • 7. Ibid. 303.
  • 8. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 364.
  • 9. Chant. Cert. Norf. No. 90.
  • 10. Misc. Bks. (Aug. Off.), ccxxxii, 35b.
  • 11. Martin, Hist. of Thetford, 189-90.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Norw. Epis. Reg. i, 63.
  • 18. Ibid. ii, 28.
  • 19. Ibid. iii, 19.
  • 20. Martin, Hist. of Thetford, 189.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. Norw. Epis. Reg. iv. 134.
  • 23. Ibid.
  • 24. Ibid. v, 29.
  • 25. Ibid. vi, 63.
  • 26. Ibid. viii, 57.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ibid. ix, 57.
  • 29. Norw. Epis. Reg. xi, 76.
  • 30. Ibid. xi, 82.
  • 31. Martin, Hist. of Thetford, 190.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. 88.
  • 34. Ibid. 155.
  • 35. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.).
  • 36. B.M. Cast, lxix, 48; Dugdale; Mon. vi, 729; Acknowledgement of Supremacy (P.R.O.), 109.
  • 37. Add. Chart. 17245; Blomefield, Norfolk, ii, 98.