Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St George, Thetford

Pages 85-86

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

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There was an old religious house on the Suffolk side of Thetford founded by Uvius, the first abbot of Bury St. Edmunds in the days of Cnut. It was said to have been founded in memory of the English and Danes who fell in a great battle near by between King Edmund and the Danish leaders Ubba and Hingwar. It was served by canons who officiated in the church of St. George as a cell of St. Edmunds. About the year 1160, in the days of Abbot Hugh, Toleard and Andrew, the two surviving religious of this cell, depressed with poverty, visited the abbot and expressed their strong desire to withdraw. At their suggestion the abbot and convent of St. Edmunds resolved to admit to the Thetford house certain Benedictine nuns who were then living at Ling, Norfolk. The bishop of Norwich, the archdeacon of Canterbury, and the sheriffs of Norfolk and Suffolk gave these ladies and their prioress Cecilia an excellent character, and the change was solemnly effected.

The abbot assigned to these nuns, at the time of the transfer, the Thetford parish churches of St. Benedict and All Saints, his rights in Favertin Fields, and whatever else belonged to the abbey of Bury within the limits of Thetford. As an acknowledgement of this, the nuns were to pay yearly 4s. to the abbey infirmary. The prioress undertook to be in all respects faithful and obedient to the abbot. (fn. 1)

Maud, countess of Norfolk and Warrenne gave to these nuns in her widowhood a rent of three marks out of her mill at Cesterford, Essex, towards their clothing. (fn. 2)

Pope Nicholas's taxation gave the annual value of the temporalities of this house as £72 9s. 4d. (fn. 3)

The 1535 Valor gave the spiritualities in Norfolk as £4 15s. 1d., and those in Suffolk at £13 16s. 8d., the temporalities in the two counties as £31 14s. 11¼d.; but from this sum there were various deductions, the largest of which was £5 6s. 8d. to their chaplain, so that the clear annual value only amounted to £40 11s. 2½d., (fn. 4) which was a great drop from the earlier valuation. The reason for this depreciation becomes clear from the statement made by Martin with regard to the taxing of the religious houses in the reign of Henry VI. At that time the nuns of Thetford were excused; their petition for relief stated that their revenues both in Norfolk and Suffolk were much decreased by recent mortality and had so continued since 1349, and that their possessions in Cranwich deanery had suffered much from inundations. (fn. 5)

In 1214 the abbey of Bury granted the nuns seven loaves and 2d. in money, to be given them every Sunday by their almoner for the corrody of Margaret Nonne. (fn. 6)

From the first establishment of the nuns at Thetford, the cumbersome plan had been adopted of sending weekly supplies from Bury St. Edmunds (a distance of about twelve miles) not only of bread and beer but even of cooked meat (fercula). The thirteenth-century custumary of the abbey states that thirty-five loaves and ninetysix gallons of beer were sent weekly to Thetford. (fn. 7) Owing to the not infrequent robberies and assaults on the servants and wagons of the convent conveying this weekly dole on a long journey, and to the occasional unsatisfactory state of the provisions on arrival, it was agreed in 1369 that henceforth, instead of forwarding bread, beer, and dressed provisions, the abbey should grant annually ten quarters of corn, twenty quarters of barley, and 62s. in money. (fn. 8)

One of the few early notices preserved of this priory tells how in 1305 William de Fornham, clerk, Walter de Trofton and John Cat, chaplains, one night after dark climbed over the priory wall and went into a house in the courtyard to talk with one Joan de Fuldon, a servant, and how, when the light shining under the door had attracted the notice of some of the nuns, the gay clerks rose up and fled back over the wall the way they came. (fn. 9)

There was a long lawsuit in 1438 between Alice Wesenham, prioress, and Robert Popy, rector of Ling. When the nuns first removed from Ling they held a messuage where they dwelt, close to the chapel of St. Edmund in Ling, together with 60 acres of land and 30 of meadow adjoining, and rents of 5s. 9d. and two hens. From that date for a long period they had received the profits; and out of them had paid a chaplain at Ling, who was sometimes called the prior of St. Edmund's chapel. But for some years past the prioress had let all to the rector of Ling, who undertook to serve the chapel, and the dispute arose as to the amount of rent and the rights of the prioress. Eventually it was decided that the king should license the prioress to convey the chapel and all the premises to the rector and his successors for ever, they paying to the prioress a clear annual pension of four marks. (fn. 10)

The nunnery was visited in November, 1492, by Archdeacon Goldwell, as commissary of his brother the bishop. Joan Eyton the prioress, six professed nuns, and four novices were severally and privately examined. The visitor found nothing needing reformation. (fn. 11)

The only suggestion made by the visitor in 1514 after examining the prioress and eight nuns was that the books required repairing. Two of the nuns expressed a fear that the prioress was about to receive as nuns certain unlearned and even deformed persons, particularly one Dorothy Sturghs, who was both deaf and deformed. (fn. 12)

The visitation of 1520, undertaken by the bishop in person, simply resulted in an entry that the nunnery was very poor; there was clearly nothing amiss. (fn. 13) Nor was there anything to correct at the visitation of 1526, when there were six professed nuns and four novices, in addition to the prioress, in attendance. (fn. 14)

The last visitation, held in July, 1532, was attended by the prioress and nine nuns. The state of the house and the observance of religion required no reformation. There was, however, an irregularity pertaining to a corrody, for one Thomas Forster, gentleman, was receiving support for himself, his wife, three children, and a maid. The infant daughter of John Jerves was in the priory, and he was paying nothing for its support. Silence was scarcely observed as well as it ought to be in the refectory. (fn. 15)

The house was dissolved in February, 1537. (fn. 16) Elizabeth Hothe, the prioress, obtained a pension of £5; (fn. 17) this pension the prioress was still enjoying at the age of 100 in the year 1553, when she was living 'as a good and catholich woman,' in the parish of St. James, Norwich. (fn. 18)

Prioresses of St. George, Thetford

Cecilia, (fn. 19) c. 1160

Agnes, (fn. 20) occurs 1253

Ellen de Berdesette, (fn. 21) elected 1310

Margaret Bretom, (fn. 22) elected 1329

Beatrix de Lystone, (fn. 23) elected 1330

Danetta de Wakethorp, (fn. 24) elected 1339

Margaret Campleon, (fn. 25) elected 1396

Margaret Chykering, (fn. 26) elected 1418

Alice Wesenham, (fn. 27) elected 1420

Margaret Copynger, (fn. 28) elected 1466

Joan Eyton, (fn. 29) elected 1477

Elizabeth Mounteneye, (fn. 30) elected 1498

Sarah Frost, (fn. 31) elected 1519

Elizabeth Hothe, (fn. 32) or Both, (fn. 33) occurs 1535, last prioress (fn. 32)


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. iv, 477-8, where the original account of the foundation is set forth at length, from Harl. MS. 743, fol. 219.
  • 2. Maddox, Hist. of Essex, 33.
  • 3. Taxatio (Rec. Com.), 109.
  • 4. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 314.
  • 5. Martin, Hist. of Thetford, 106.
  • 6. Ibid. 101.
  • 7. Harl. MS. 3977, fol. 25.
  • 8. Martin, Hist. of Thetford, 102-3.
  • 9. Assize R. 1234, m. 26.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. 33.
  • 12. Ibid. 90-1.
  • 13. Ibid. 155.
  • 14. Ibid. 243.
  • 15. Ibid. 303-4.
  • 16. L. and P.Hen. VIII, xii, pt. i, 510.
  • 17. Ibid. xiii (1), 576.
  • 18. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. ii, 92.
  • 19. Harl. MS. 743, fol. 219.
  • 20. Martin, Hist. of Thetford, 106.
  • 21. Norw. Epis. Reg. i, 39.
  • 22. Ibid. ii, 33.
  • 23. Ibid. ii, 36.
  • 24. Ibid. iii, 39.
  • 25. Ibid. vi, 223.
  • 26. Ibid. viii, 36.
  • 27. Ibid. viii, 57.
  • 28. Ibid. xi, 158.
  • 29. Ibid. xii, 55.
  • 30. Ibid. xii, 203.
  • 31. Ibid. xiv, 153.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii, pt. i, 576.
  • 33. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 313.