Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre and part of Saxon town


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1014861

Date first listed: 17-Mar-1936

Date of most recent amendment: 30-Aug-1996


Ordnance survey map of Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre and part of Saxon town
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Norfolk

District: Breckland (District Authority)

Parish: Thetford

National Grid Reference: TL 86540 83011


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning, and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 225 of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their revenue. The Augustinians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

The canons of the Holy Sepulchre were a small sub-order of Augustinian canons, originating with the Crusades and the institution of the canons of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1114. One of their particular interests was the provision of hospitality for pilgrims. Only six houses of the order are known to have been founded in England, some of which were extremely small, and among these the Priory of the Holy Sepulchre in Thetford is of particular interest, because it is the only one in which standing remains of monastic buildings survive. The monument will retain archaeological information concerning not only the construction and development of the monastic church and activities in the adjacent area of the monastic precinct but also the occupation of the site prior to the foundation of the monastery. Between the mid ninth century and the 11th centuries Thetford developed as a major centre of commerce, centred on an important river crossing and including a large defended settlement south of the Little Ouse. The Domesday survey in the late 11th century shows it to have been among the six largest and most populous late Saxon towns in England, and at this time it was also, briefly, the site of a bishopric. From the 12th century onwards, development shifted to the north bank of the river, and the Late Saxon settlement on the south side is therefore relatively undisturbed by later activity. The limited excavations on the site of the priory have demonstrated that remains of the pre-Conquest settlement underlie the monastic church and will survive well in the area of open land to the south and east of it, adding to the evidence for the development of the town and the lives of its people. As a monastic ruin open to the public and in the care of the Secretary of State the priory itself is a valuable educational and recreational resource whilst the area to the south east is dedicated open space and is managed for its amenity value.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes remains of the Priory of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, centred on the ruined nave of the priory church and situated on the north side of the Brandon Road, 162m south of the Little Ouse River. The remains of a Dominican friary lie c.225m to the east of the priory and to the north, on the opposite side of the river, is the much larger Cluniac Priory of St Mary's. Underlying the remains of the priory, and also included in the scheduling, are buried features relating to the pre-Conquest town of Thetford.

The priory was founded in or soon after the year 1139, before he departed on Crusade, by William de Warenne, third Earl of Suffolk, who endowed it with the Church of St Sepulchre and an area of adjoining land, together with all the lands, churches, tithes and manorial rights which he held in Thetford south of the river. This was supplemented by further grants from the Crown and de Warenne's successors and gifts from lesser benefactors, and the Hospital of God's House (Domus Dei), situated c.300m to the east, was settled on the priory in 1347. The house was never wealthy, however, and surviving records suggest that it declined in later years. A survey of the priory's holdings in Thetford in 1338 gives the income from these as 62 pounds nine shillings, but by the early 16th century it was stated to be insufficient for the maintenance of the priory buildings which were in need of repair. Before the suppression of the priory in 1536 the clear annual value was assessed at 38 pounds 15 shillings and the commissioners for the suppression reported that the house was `very Ruyinous ande in Decaye'. During the later medieval period the recorded number of adult religious in the community ranged from eight to only three. After the suppression the site passed to Sir Richard Fulmerston. The nave of the church survived in use as a barn, but by the 18th century the east end had been demolished. In the 19th century the ruins were adapted as an ornamental garden feature with a grotto and rockery attached.

The nave of the priory church, which is also Listed Grade I and is in the care of the Secretary of State, is rectangular, without aisles, and measures c.24m east-west by c.10m. Traces of foundations were observed in limited excavations which were carried out to east and north of the nave in 1969, showing that the church as a whole was originally c.53m in length overall and cruciform in plan, with rectangular transepts to north and south of a central crossing and a rectangular east end c.16m in length, and that there was a rectangular cloister adjoining it on the north side. Surviving buried remains of the west side of the crossing and south transept are included within the area of protection.

The nave of the church is of five bays, with external buttresses, and the walls, which are constructed of mortared flint rubble with ashlar dressings, stand to a height of c.6m, displaying the remains of various blocked and altered openings of medieval and post-medieval date. The north wall of the easternmost bay has been rebuilt, however, and is post-monastic, as is the adjoining wall across the east end of the nave, which is presumed to date from the original conversion of the building to a barn. Both internal and external faces of the medieval walls are decorated with a string course.

The arched opening of the west door of the church, now blocked, survives in the west wall, below the blocked opening of part of a large window, and in the adjacent west end of the north wall there is another, smaller doorway which originally gave access from the cloister. Both entrances are considered to be original features, since the internal string course is stepped up over them, but the second doorway shows evidence of alteration, in that the moulding of the arch, below a relieving arch of alternating brick and ashlar, is clearly a later insertion and does not match the jambs, which themselves are constructed partly of reused stone. The north wall also includes the lower part of a row of window openings at clerestory level, and the blocked, internally splayed openings of larger windows can be seen in the south wall opposite.

The excavations immediately to the north of the nave revealed traces of a south cloister walk alongside, and corbels for the support of a pentice roof over the walk survive on the external face of the north wall, below the level of the clerestory windows. The conventual buildings, such as the chapter house, canons' dorter (dormitory) and refectory, would have been grouped around the cloister, and it is possible that a stub of wall which extends northwards from the north west angle of the nave and retains some of its original ashlar facing is a remnant of part of the west range.

Features which date from the period when the nave was in use as a barn include a large cart entrance cut through the south wall in the third bay, and a smaller doorway in the north wall opposite. Both are also now blocked. A round arched entrance in the post-medieval wall across the east end of the nave was probably inserted when the building was converted into a picturesque ruin. It is constructed of reused stone which includes many architectural fragments of 12th century type. The remains of the grotto, constructed of large flint nodules, can be seen at the east end of the nave, adhering to the external face of the south wall. Ruined walls which extend southward from the eastern part of the nave are the remains of a building which abutted the post-medieval barn and which, in 18th century accounts of the site, is said to have been in use as a hen house.

The excavations to the east of the nave revealed fragmentary remains of chalk foundations and robbed foundation trenches which are evidence for a building predating the church and perhaps relating to the original foundation of the priory or to the period before the Conquest. Below these were found various buried features dated to the late Saxon period, including infilled pits and ditches and evidence for timber structures indicative of intensive occupation. These relate to the late Saxon town of Thetford which occupied the area south of the river and was the subject of large scale excavations on the south side of the Brandon Road opposite. Further remains of late Saxon date will be preserved in the area of open ground known as School Plain to the south and east of the remains of the priory church, and this area is also included in the scheduling.

All modern boundary fences and walls within the protected area are excluded from the scheduling, together with the surface of the path giving access to the monument, the remains of an inspection chamber to the south of the nave, a signpost and information boards, and lamp posts on the south side of School Plain, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 21409

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 391-393
Dallas, C, 'East Anglian Archaeol' in Excavations in Thetford by B K Davison between 1964 and 1970, , Vol. 62, (1993)
Hare, J N, 'Norfolk Archaeol' in The Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford, , Vol. 37, (1979), 190-200
5749: Breckland; Thetford,
Rogerson, A, (1995)

End of official listing