Thetford Cluniac priory


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1017669

Date first listed: 13-May-1948

Date of most recent amendment: 10-Jun-1998


Ordnance survey map of Thetford Cluniac priory
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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 86525 83332


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. The Cluniac order had its origins in the monastic reformations which swept across continental Europe in the tenth century. The reformations which occurred were partly a response to the impact of Viking raids and attacks on established monastic sites in the preceding century but were also a reaction against the corruption and excesses which were increasingly noted amongst earlier establishments. The Cluniacs were amongst the most successful of the new reformed orders that developed. The founding house of Cluny in south-east France was established in AD 910. Here the community obeyed a stringent set of rules which, amongst other things, involved celibacy, communal living and abstention from eating meat. The ideals of the Cluniac reformers passed on to England in the tenth century. Influential Cluniac houses had been established in England by 1077. Once established, Cluniac houses were notable for the strong links they maintained both with the founding house of Cluny in France and also with other houses of their order. Most Cluniac houses in England were established near major towns and they particularly sought locations in valley bottoms within the protection of a nearby castle. Cluniac monasteries are notable for highly decorated, elaborate buildings. Cluniac houses are relatively rare, with some forty-four houses known in England, and all examples exhibiting good survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Thetford Priory was one of three principal priories of the Cluniac order established in Norfolk, and the standing remains illustrate very clearly the layout of the conventual buildings, as well as providing information concerning their structural history. The monument will also retain archaeological evidence for the domestic, social and economic organization of the monastery. This archaeological evidence is supplemented by documentary records which include a late 15th and early 16th century register containing further details of the domestic and agricultural buildings within the monastic precinct. The association of the priory with the Howard Dukes of Norfolk, and the evidence for the conversion of one of the monastic buildings into a high status dwelling following the dissolution, give the monument additional interest.

The site is one of several monuments relating to the medieval town of Thetford which are accessible to the public and, being partly in the care of the Secretary of State and maintained for public display, it provides a valuable recreational and educational amenity.


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


Thetford Cluniac priory is situated on the west side of the medieval town, on ground adjacent to the Little Ouse River which flows along the southern boundary of the monastic precinct. The monument includes the central part of the precinct containing the standing and buried remains of the monastic church and conventual buildings and the remains of water control features to the south and west of these.

The priory, dedicated to St Mary, was established in 1104 by Roger Bigod and colonised by a prior and 12 monks from Lewes priory (the first Cluniac monastery to be established in England). The original foundation was to the south of the river, within the Saxon town and centred on the former cathedral church which had been abandoned when the see was moved to Norwich. This urban site soon proved to be too confined and building was begun on the present site in 1107, the prior and convent moving to it in 1114. The priory was among the larger and wealthier religious foundations in Norfolk, with a recorded community numbering up to 24 monks, and an annual income assessed in 1291 at 123 pounds, 12 shillings and 5 pence. In 1535 the clear annual value was put at 312 pounds, 14 shillings and 4 pence. Patronage of the priory reverted to the crown following the death of Roger Bigod in 1307 and was granted by Edward II to his half brother de Brotherton, later passing by marriage to the Mowbrays and then the Howards, several of whom were buried in the priory church. Following the surrender of the priory in 1540, the site was acquired by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

The principal entry to the monastic precinct was on the north side through a gatehouse which is now in the grounds of Abbey House. To the east and south west of the gatehouse are standing and buried remains of other buildings of monastic date. The remains of the church and associated conventual buildings which form the core of the monastic complex lie 113m to the south east of the gatehouse and include the ruins of a large building known as the Prior's Lodging immediately to the west of the church. This building shows evidence of successive alterations following the dissolution of the monastery in the 16th century, and to the south of it there are remains of a formal garden. In the low-lying meadow on the northern side of the river and to the south and south west of the monastic buildings there are also remains of several water management features believed to be of monastic origin.

The remains of the church, the priory and its claustral buildings and adjacent Prior's Lodging, together with the gatehouse, Abbey Farm Cottage and its adjacent barn are all Listed Grade I and in the care of the Secretary of State.

The gatehouse is dated to the 14th century and is built chiefly of mortared flint rubble, faced externally with knapped flint and with stone dressings. The walls still stand to their original height of three storeys and display various original features, although the roof and floors no longer survive. In the north and south walls are the wide openings for the carriageway, surmounted by segmental arches, and on the internal faces of the walls immediately above these can be seen sockets for the joists of the floor above. The level of the floor of the third storey is marked by offsets in the walls. The first and second floor chambers were lit by square headed windows of three lights and two lights respectively, centred over the entrance arches, and on the first floor there are also deeply splayed window slots in the east and west walls, adjacent to the northern angles. Other features include a large, brick-backed fireplace in the west wall of the first floor chamber and another, smaller fireplace in the south wall of the chamber above. The walls of the second floor chamber also display evidence of internal alteration, including areas of patching with chalk blocks. Polygonal turrets at the south eastern and south western angles of the gatehouse contain the remains of a stair and a garderobe (privy).

In the east wall of the gatehouse at ground floor level is the blocked arch of a doorway to an adjoining building which extended westwards along the northern precinct boundary and is thought to have been an almonry. This remained standing into the early 19th century and is depicted in an 18th century engraving. The stone weathering of its steeply pitched roof is still visible on the external face of the gatehouse wall and, although the building has been demolished, remains of the foundations will survive below the ground surface and are included in the scheduling.

Adjoining the buttress at the north west angle of the gatehouse is the stub of the medieval precinct wall which ran westwards from the entry. The line of the wall is continued for a distance of about 10m by a rebuild which includes random reused fragments of ashlar, this is believed to stand on medieval foundations and is also included in the scheduling.

Abbey Farm Cottage and an adjacent barn, situated within the monastic precinct to the south west of the gatehouse, incorporate the remains of two timber framed buildings of medieval date, one identified as a 13th century aisled hall, perhaps for the reception and accommodation of visitors, and the other as an early 15th century building of two storeys, jettied on the south face and with a 16th century, post-monastic extension to the east. Both buildings are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included. Limited excavations have confirmed that in the area to the south of these buildings, evidence survives beneath the ground surface for various activities during the monastic period, including the casting of a bell.

The church and associated conventual buildings were built on a series of shallow artificial terraces in the south facing slope above the river. Little of the masonry now stands to a height of more than 2m, but the layout of the original early- to mid-12th century complex, with evidence for later additions and modifications, is clearly displayed in the ruined flint walls and exposed foundations, which also retain remnants of stone dressing and architectural detail. The walls of some of the additions are distinguished by the inclusion of reused ashlar and architectural fragments and, in the later parts, by the occasional use of brick.

The church was built originally on a plan similar to that used for the church of the Cluniac monastery at Castle Acre and is cruciform, with an aisled nave of eight bays and transepts to north and south of a central crossing. In the nave, all that remains visible above ground are footings of the north wall and west front, the foundations of the piers which supported twin towers at the west end, and the stumps of some of the piers of the arcades between the nave and the aisles. The walls of the transepts and east end survive to a greater height. The original east end was symmetrical in plan, with apsidal chapels off the transepts and an apsidal presbytery flanked by shorter apsidal aisles. The buried foundations of the presbytery apse are marked out in concrete on the ground surface. The lower walls of the apsidal transept chapels survive and the outline of blind arcading can still be seen on their internal faces where the stone has been removed from the flint rubble matrix. In the south wall of the south transept is the round headed opening of a doorway into a sacristy (repository for vestments and church vessels), and east of this is an adjacent opening onto the base of a newel (spiral) stair which led up to the dorter (monks' dormitory). Other original details preserved in the choir and presbytery include parts of the ashlar facing at the bases of the piers and walls and, in the tallest surviving fragment of the south wall, parts of the supporting shafts, springing and roll moulding of the arch of the original eastern apse, the springing of the eastern arch of the arcade which divided the presbytery from the aisle to the south, and traces of arcading at triforium and clerestory levels. At the crossing are the bases of the four great piers which supported a central tower, and between the western pair of these are the footings of the screen which separated the monks' choir from the nave.

On the north side of the presbytery are the remains of a large, rectangular Lady chapel, begun in the first half of the 13th century and replacing the north presbytery aisle, which was demolished. This chapel housed a miraculous image of the Virgin which attracted many pilgrims, and the additional wealth this brought to the priory probably financed the building of a new east end to the presbytery which, as outlined by the surviving wall footings, is square ended and approximately 9m longer than the original. The east wall of the south presbytery aisle, containing a large window opening with pointed arch, was also built at this time to replace the original apse. A small chapel in the external angle between the north transept and the wall of the nave aisle is a later addition, dated to the late 15th century and thought to have been built to house the tomb of the first Howard Duke of Norfolk, killed in 1485 at the battle of Bosworth. A door opening inserted in the north wall of the north transept leads into a second sacristy of similar date, represented by exposed wall foundations. This is rectangular in plan, divided by a cross wall in which are the remains of a brick oven, probably for the baking of wafers for the mass.

The principal conventual buildings, which are also primarily of 11th and early 12th century date, with later additions and alterations, are ranged around three sides of a quadrangular cloister adjoining the south side of the nave of the church. The lower part of the east range, which was originally of two storeys, with the dorter on the upper floor, extends southwards from the south transept and adjoining sacristy. Immediately to the south of the sacristy are the remains of the chapter house where the monks met to discuss the business of the priory. This is rectangular in plan, with a narrow bench running around the base of the walls and a door opening from the cloister alley to the west. The east wall, which retains some plaster on the internal face, is a 14th century insertion replacing the original apsidal east end, the foundations of which are outlined in concrete in the ground surface beyond. To the south of the chapter house are the remains of the day stairs from the cloister to the dorter, and next to these, a slype or through passage leading to an infirmary complex beyond. Against the north and south walls of this passage can be seen the bases of columns to support a vault. In the south wall there is also a door opening into an undercroft, which was vaulted in seven bays to either side of a central arcade. The rubble core of several of the piers of the arcade survive, and between them are the footings of various cross walls inserted at later dates and subdividing the area into smaller apartments which include a parlour and a warming house containing the remains of a fireplace set into the east wall.

The reredorter (latrine block), with a stone-lined drain behind it, extends east-west across the southern end of the east range, and although only the footings of the walls can be seen, the bases of some of the latrine chutes, lined with ashlar and issuing into the drain, survive in the rear wall.

The earliest and most important component of the infirmary complex adjacent to the east range is the infirmary hall and chapel. This is a long, rectangular building, aligned west-east and dated to the beginning of the 13th century. Adjoining it on the south side are three further building ranges constructed in the 15th century around a small cloister surfaced with flint cobbles and with a central well. None of the walls stands to more than 1m in height, but surviving internal features include part of a 14th century floor in the chapel, paved with tiles of a type manufactured at Bawsey in north west Norfolk, and fireplaces in the walls of the west and south claustral ranges. The hall and the range on the west side of the infirmary cloister are connected to the main claustral complex by a passage, the south wall of which includes traces of an elaborately moulded arcade on its inner face and is dated to the later 15th century.

Most of the south range is occupied by the refectory, with a dais for the high table at the east end and low platforms retained by masonry kerbs along the north and south walls. These walls still stand in places to a height of up to 8m and include openings for large windows. A slight projection in the external face of the south wall, towards the eastern end, marks the site of the pulpit from which readings were given during meals, and at the western end of the north wall is the opening and sill of the entry from the cloister, beside which are traces of the laver (ceremonial washing place) facing onto the cloister alley. In the west wall is the opening of a doorway to what was originally the buttery, later converted into a kitchen and containing the remains of an inserted hearth and two double ovens dated to the early 15th and early 16th century respectively. Fragmentary foundations of an earlier, detached kitchen to the south of this are exposed alongside the wall footings of a range of offices which were also added in the early 16th century.

The west range, completed around the end of the 12th century, was originally of two storeys. The upper floor, which probably contained apartments for the prior and his guests according to the usual monastic custom, does not survive, but the ground plan of the lower floor is outlined by the exposed wall footings which in places retain evidence for vaulting and other architectural features of various dates. At the north end, abutting the south west angle of the church, is the outer parlour which was originally the entry to the cloister from the outer courts of the monastery and used for meetings between the monks and lay visitors. This was altered in the 14th century by the addition of a room to the west, enclosing the outer doorway, and by the insertion of a new vault and an internal stair, the remains of which can be seen against the south wall. At the west end of the south wall is a doorway with steps down to an undercroft which occupies the remainder of the range. This undercroft, which would have been used chiefly for storage, is divided into two main sections, respectively of three and four bays to either side of a central arcade and both subdivided by later inserted cross walls. At the southern end, adjoining the west end of the south range, is a smaller section of one bay. Surviving features include parts of the piers which supported the central arcade in the largest, central section, one with its original capital, and the lower part of a window in the west wall of the north bay.

The building known as the Prior's Lodging is a long, narrow, two-storeyed range, approximately 6m in width, extending WNW from the northern end of the west claustral range and it is, after the gatehouse, the best preserved masonry building associated with the monastery. It remained in use into the 18th century, and the walls, which stand in part almost to roof height, display evidence of major alterations in the post-monastic period. The earliest visible part is an early 13th century undercroft at the western end, approximately 50m from the west end of the monastic church and sunken about 0.8m below the modern ground surface. Limited excavations carried out between 1971 and 1974 have shown that this represents the remains of the northern half of a detached, rectangular building, probably of two storeys, measuring about 11m square and divided by an east-west spine wall. The walls, which are approximately 0.9m thick and stand in places to just above ground level, are constructed of mortared flint and display original features which include the corbels and springing of a ribbed vault, as well as the sills and lower jambs of internally splayed windows in the north and east and south walls. The original west wall is obscured behind an end wall inserted at a later date. The brick floor is of post-medieval date, as are brick steps inserted in the south wall, and the window in the east wall has been modified by the insertion of a later fireplace in the eastern face. The southern half of the building no longer stands, although buried foundations are known to survive. Buried foundations of walls and floors of 13th, 14th and possibly 15th century date have also been located below the standing walls to the east.

The present appearance of the Prior's Lodging above ground is that of a high status, early post-medieval secular dwelling, but the original structure has been dated to the later 15th or early 16th century. The walls, which show evidence of extensive patching and refacing, are constructed chiefly of clunch (local chalk) and flint, incorporating some brick, reused ashlar and fragments of architectural mouldings, and are clearly distinguishable from the masonry of the earlier undercroft. Several one- and two-light windows of late medieval type, one partly removed by a later alteration, are set into the external walls at ground and first floor level, and an internal wall includes arched doorways. In the south wall of the building, opposite the arch of the gatehouse to the north, is a wide archway which is a post-monastic insertion constructed of reused 12th century stonework, presumably quarried from the priory. A corresponding gap in the north wall probably contained a similar feature. The excavations revealed a metalled road or path running beneath this opening, forming part of a formal axial approach from the gatehouse. Immediately to the east of the arch is a smaller, round-arched doorway, also built of reused 12th century stonework with roll moulding and billet decoration, which opened onto a stair leading to the upper floor. Traces of the stair can be seen on the face of the internal wall to the east of the opening. Other post-monastic features in the south wall, probably relating to a later alteration, are arranged symmetrically in relation to the smaller arch and include rectangular doorways and a series of rectangular windows of late 16th or early 17th century type with chamfered brick surrounds. Drawings made in the early 18th and early 19th centuries show the large central arch blocked, with a similar rectangular window inset, although this blocking has now been removed. One of the surviving windows at the eastern end displays original brick mullions and transom; the others are now blocked, some with smaller windows set into the blocking. On the ground floor to the west of the larger arch are a well and a latrine sump which are thought to be of 17th century date or later. According to the 18th century historian, Blomefield, the roof was pulled off much of the house in 1737, although later maps indicate that the western end may have continued in use as a farm building until the early 19th century.

To the south of the building there are remains of the formal garden, arranged on the same north-south axis as the approach and divided into two parts. The part adjoining the building is enclosed by the remains of a post-medieval wall which still stands around the southern end. Flint footings are also visible along the west side, backing a low, flat-topped earthen bank about 2m wide. The standing section of the wall, which shows evidence of repair and rebuilding, is constructed of flint and clunch with a plinth of moulded brick of 16th or 17th century type. In it there is a central arched gateway constructed of assorted reused medieval architectural fragments and probably inserted in the 19th century. This opens onto a water garden at a lower level, with a central, rectangular, embanked pond. To the west of the central gateway and largely below the level of the garden to the north is another archway of stone.

The buried foundations of a wall thought to be of monastic origin, and probably to mark part of the boundary of the precinct, run for approximately 165m westwards from a point west of the gardens along the south side of the boundary between the river meadows and properties to the north. These produce parch marks in the grass which are visible in dry weather and are included in the scheduling.

The supply of water which the monastery needed for agricultural and industrial purposes, as well as for domestic use including sanitation, would have been drawn chiefly from the river, and several water management features which survive or have been recorded in the meadows north of the river and within the monastic precinct are thought to have a monastic origin. A map published in 1807 shows a channel to the west of the former line of Water Lane, running northwards towards the conventual buildings, and this feature, which has been infilled but which will survive as a buried feature, probably supplied water to the infirmary and to flush the drain behind the reredorter. Further to the west, another channel still remains open, running from the river northwards in the direction of the kitchens in the south western part of the claustral complex and turning westwards along the southern edge of the gardens associated with the Prior's Lodging. To the west of the gardens a slight meander in its course marks the site of a large pond which may originally have been associated with a mill. The pond has now been infilled, but is marked on 19th century maps and remained visible until the 1970s as a damp hollow.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are Abbey Farm Cottage and adjacent barn, Abbey House and associated garages, a greenhouse, all surfaces of drives and garden paths, yard and car park surfaces, paving, inspection chambers, garden walls (other than those of medieval origin), fences, gates, a service pole to the south east of the gatehouse, and a concrete post inscribed MoW 1955 adjacent to the gatehouse, all English Heritage signs and information boards, metal shutters over the Howard burial vault within the ruined church, sheds within the English Heritage compound, and the modern foot bridges and lamp posts; the ground beneath all these features is, however, 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: 21420

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Blomefield, F, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, (1805), 116-118
Cox, J C, The Victoria History of the County of Norfolk, (1906), 363-369
Raby, F J E, Baillie Reynolds, P K, Thetford Priory, (1984)
Davison, A, 'East Anglian Archaeology' in Excavations in Thetford by B K Davison: The documentary record, , Vol. 62, (1993), 195
Wilcox, R, 'Norfolk Archaeol' in Thetford Cluniac Priory Excavations 1971-4, , Vol. 40 Pt 1, (1987), 1-18
DoE, DoE 36/TUD/UK59/pt 11 5204, (1946)
held in SMR file : ref. 5748, (1990)
Heyward, S, (1995)
NRO: Rye Mss 17, Martin, T, Church Collections: Sketch of the Old Priory House at Thetford,
Penn, K, Excavations in Outer Court..Priory of Our Lady Thetford, 1991, Typescript: copy in SMR file
reproduced in Guide Book, Godfrey,
Reproduced in Wilcox R (1987), Wilkinson, J, (1822)
Title: A Map of the Municipal Borough of Thetford Source Date: 1837 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: NRO P150B/6 M9
Title: A Plan of the Ancient Town of Thetford Source Date: 1807 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: NRO P150B/6 M9
Title: A Plan of the Ancient Town of Thetford Source Date: 1807 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: NRO P150B/6 M9
Title: Ordnance Survey 1:2500 Map Source Date: 1833 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Title: Ordnance Survey 1:2500 Source Date: 1883 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Typescript: copy in SMR file, Heywood, S, Abbey Farm, Thetford: a Timber-Framed Cluniac Coventual Building, (1991)

End of official listing