The Dissolution at Thetford

Jackie.Hall | August 29, 2012

Spurred on by deadlines for talks, I put away my 3-D virtual models (temporarily) in favour of some serious research about the Dissolution at Thetford Priory. What I particularly wanted to look at is the few years after the priory was dissolved, especially since it immediately came into the hands of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk. Did the fact that the tombs of his family were at Thetford, and his known catholic sympathies, affect the immediate fate of the priory after its suppression in 1540? We know from a survey of arms that at least one ceiling was intact in December 1546, after Howard was arrested for treason and spending time at his majesty’s pleasure in the Tower of London. Survival of parts of the church (for instance the lady chapel) was also good until the 18th century, and some of the floors remained intact until they were uncovered in the 1930s. Not much of a case, perhaps, but tantalising nonetheless.

Church of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, looking north-east. Note the now-blocked large barn door opening in the middle of the south wall.Add to that the fates of the other major religious houses in Thetford. Of the four of them, the fate of one is unknown but the church of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre can still be visited, and was used as a barn for hundreds of years. The church of St George’s nunnery became part of a house in the late 16th or early 17th century (now the British Trust for Ornithology) while there is strong evidence that the chancel of the Blackfriars – original home of the famous Thornham Parva retable – stood for many years. This is a rather high survival rate for a town well-supplied with parish churches and all of these had come into the ownership of Richard Fulmerston (later Sir Richard, founder of Thetford Grammar School) a man closely linked to the Howards. He was the duke’s master of horse and even spoke up for him at his trial for treason.  Is it possible to suggest that this level of survival was intimately connected with Howard patronage – patronage both of the priory and personal patronage of a family friend?

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