Aerial Photograph of Thetford Priory, looking north, with the church in the centre of the picture (©English Heritage.NMR)

The Howard tombs were originally located at Thetford Priory, so that makes the priory itself, especially the church, an important part of the project. As the archaeologist, I’m looking at the priory from a couple of different angles: one is about the discovery of the fragments in the 1930s and the other is about reconstructing the late medieval setting of the monuments, just prior to the Dissolution.

In the 1930s, after the priory was taken into Guardianship (it now belongs to English Heritage), it was cleared of overgrowth, and the ground was reduced to the medieval floor levels, no mean feat, as by this time it was piled high above the foundations.

The priory church, looking south-east in 1930, showing how deeply buried the buildings were then. Most of the remains are heavily overgrown with ivy and there is a huge mound of grass-covered earth in the middle of the east end of the church (©Crown copyright.NMR)Clearance excavations like these were often poorly recorded. At Thetford, we only have a few photographs, but we’re lucky to have a series of ‘find sheets’, which record what was found, when and where. From these, it has been possible to recreate the grid the workmen used to mark up their finds, and in many instances to identify the actual objects themselves, from architectural fragments to book clasps to painted window glass to decorative plasterwork and more, now held by English Heritage and also the Norfolk Museum Service.

From this information and these collections we can learn all sorts of things, for example the location of the tomb fragments that match the Framlingham tombs; the state of the priory shortly after the Dissolution; something of the grandeur of the building and its fittings just before the Dissolution and clues to the life that was led there.

This is part of a stone shaft, carved so that the centre is hollow and the outside is an openwork tracery pattern, set in a spiral. It may have come from a screen surrounding one of the tombsThe Setting of the Tombs
The Howards came from the highest level of aristocracy and chose their burial places with care. Although tradition was very important – previous dukes of Norfolk were buried at Thetford – it was just as important for the priory to provide a proper environment for those tombs. What the church itself looked like can be inferred from the standing remains, from our knowledge of similar buildings and from contemporary documents. Similarly, the actual location of the tombs – and what happened to them afterwards – can be discovered from a mixture of archaeology and documentary material.

Many of the finds also tell about the immediate surroundings of the tombs; there is evidence of grand and unusual stone screens, for instance, and painted plasterwork. Just as important was the liturgical setting. Was a particular tomb placed near the high altar – like that of Thomas Howard in 1524 – or was it close to a particular altar or chapel or relic?

Dr Jackie Hall