Thetford Priory is yet another large and impressive priory ruin in Norfolk that housed the Cluniac monks; very similar to Castle Acre Priory.
Thetford Priory is one that is often overlooked, I think due mainly to the fact that it’s not easy to see from any of the roads surrounding it, and is just outside the centre of the town.
The Title of this wonderful ruin is The Priory of Our Lady of Thetford.
It’s a huge and impressive ruin, very peaceful and intriguing, and at the same time completely absorbing. As you wander around it, you become totally engrossed in how these monks must have lived and the sheer size of the actual Priory.
This particular Priory was built on a grand scale, and as with many of these priories, it had a central cloister with many different rooms coming off the cloisters such as the bedrooms, refectory, church and chapter house, all of which are outlined by the ruined walls.
It also had its own hospital and a Prior’s Lodging, so it was by no means small.
Lots of information boards are dotted around the site which are very helpful and give you a good feel for quite how large this priory was and also how the monks lived.
It really was much larger than I expected. In fact, all these ruins are larger than you imagine, and two particular examples of this are Binham Priory and Castle Acre Priory.
Thetford Priory was founded in 1103 by Roger Bigod who was one of William the Conqueror’s Norman Knights, and became the 2nd Earl of Norfolk.
He was also one of the larger landowners in Norfolk at the time and is said to have had 186 Manors. As was fairly normal, large and impressive buildings were a sign of status and this was no exception.
After the death of the last Roger Bigod in 1309, the estate passed to the Crown and then to the Dukes of Norfolk.
In the 1930’s the grounds of the priory were cleared of deep soil and ivy, and the 1524 vault of the burial place of Roger Bigod was discovered. It’s now clear to see but the actual vault is covered in with sand.
In the 13th Century, before the suppression, Thetford Priory was home to a statue of the Virgin Mary which was said to be very popular with Pilgrims. It’s believed that a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to locals and requested an addition of a Lady Chapel to the site. As this chapel was being built, a hollow was found in the statue’s head which concealed the Saint’s relics, thus making it a very attractive place for pilgrims to visit.
At the time, the principal seat of the Bishops of East Anglia was North Elmham, but this was transferred to Thetford in 1071 and so Thetford Priory was hugely significant.
The Priory was expanded over the centuries, but after the dissolution of the Monasteries, the Prior’s Lodgings continued to be used for another 200 years and was eventually turned into a farmhouse.
Thetford Priory became the burial ground for many of the Earls, Dukes and Duchesses of Norfolk
The ruins here are still very impressive, and one of the columns was clearly a magnificent arch.
There are remains of the walled garden, the Prior’s Lodgings, the 12th century priory and various outbuildings.
The detailed architecture that you’ll see on the brick is incredible. It’s amazing to still be able to see the monk’s benches in the chapter house and with the help of the information boards, it’s so easy to visualise how it would have looked.
The walled garden around the Gate House must have been amazing, and this is now a flat expanse of grass, but the wall remains.
The whole site of the priory was surrounded by a wall, and the entrance was via the gatehouse which was built a little later when funds were larger, thanks to the visit of the pilgrims to see the Statue of The Virgin Mary.
I’m a bit lost for words to describe this, as this gatehouse is really well preserved. It reminds me a little of the gatehouse at Baconsthorpe Castle.
The Priory is reputedly said to be haunted, but we can only go on what stories have been told!
Apparently various witnesses have seen the same vision; a hooded Cluniac monk walking around in a black robe.
So if you happen to see him, let me know!
The site is managed by English Heritage.
There are no facilities here, it is just a secluded ruin on the edge of Thetford.
The Priory car park is free (although very small), and is on Water Lane and the postcode is IP24 1BB.
As it’s free for all to see, it’s open daily from April-September, 8am until 6pm and from October to March from 8am until 4pm.
It’s an easy to walk to get to from the town.
Dogs are allowed, on leads.