Our final port of call in Thetford is the site of the Cluniac Priory of St Mary which was founded as long ago as 1103 AD by Roger Bigod who was the First Earl Of Norfolk. All that remains now are ruins, though extremely extensive ruins they are, consisting of a large church, living quarters for the prior and all the associated buildings of a large and successful monastery.
Like many ruins seen in this country there is an awful lot of neatly trimmed grass between and inside the walls of the buildings. What's also clear is that a lot of stone has gone missing. Where has it all gone? Here's my guess.
This is a section of the old pub we saw in the previous post. The corners are made of red brick, the dark stone is flint, but where did the large light-coloured blocks come from? I would suggest an ecclesiastical origin. One of the blocks (just above half-way up on the left-hand side) even looks as though it bears a fragment of a pattern. There was probably a lot of flint used in the priory too and I suspect that it too has been "quarried" shamelessly over the centuries to build the town.
The bases of some of the columns hints at how ornate the building once was. Those dressed stones probably only escaped the attentions of the "quarriers" because they were buried by the heaps of material that must have been here at one time.
The bases of the columns which have survived give some idea of how big the church once was. And we also know that the Cluniac monasteries were much grander and more decorated than those of some more austere orders.
Some time before 1240 a certain Stephen was appointed Prior. He excused himself from attending important meetings and lived a life of excess and debauchery. This culminated with an argument with a hot-headed Welsh monk who, taking exception to the bad language which the Prior used to him, pulled out a knife and stabbed him to death.
Here's a story for you. Are you sitting comfortably?
Once upon a time, in the thirteenth century, a workman from Thetford had a dream. He dreamt that The Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him that he should persuade the Prior to build a Lady Chapel on the north side of the church. This dream occurred three times and the Prior agreed to the scheme, but in order to keep costs down he proposed building it of wood. The man eventually talked the Prior into building in stone. As the building neared completion it was realised that they needed a statue of The Virgin to put in the new chapel.
The ever thrifty Prior remembered that they already had one, though it would need some repairs. During this work it was discovered that the statue had a hollow head, inside which were discovered many holy relics: "the robe of our Lord, of the girdle of our Lady, of our Lord's sepulchre, of the rock of Calvary, of our Lady's sepulchre, of our Lord's manger, of the sepulchre of St. John, and relics of SS. George, Agnes, Barbara, Vincent, Leger, Gregory, Leonard, Jerome, Edmund, Etheldreda, and parts of the grave-clothes of Lazarus".
Shortly afterwards several "miracles" occurred in the town including two dead babies who were restored to life. The Priory became an important site of pilgrimage.
Although the church and monastery buildings are so ruinous, the gatehouse has survived almost intact. But you have to go through someone's garden to see it. The man at the house was very friendly, though his dog wasn't so sure!
The church nearly survived too. The Duke Of Norfolk wanted to convert the church to "an honest parish church" and had the funds to finance the clergy and the upkeep of the building. His motivation for doing this was that many of his ancestors were interred there. King Henry VIII agreed to this plan - for a while. Then the cantankerous old devil changed his mind so in 1540 the buildings were abandoned.