Saturday, 11 January 2014

What Was And What Might Have Been

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.

Take care.


  1. what an amazing place to visit, and the setting on the beautiful green lawns, picture perfect. I especially like the snap taken through the arched hole in wall John

  2. I expect that the cost of building the new lady chapel was soon re-couped from the many pilgrims visiting. I've really enjoyed your last three posts about Thetford:)

  3. Lot of recycled stone in these sort of places. Here in Ely too! Lovely visit to Thetford!

  4. You have a lot of neat old places there. Always enjoy your tours.

  5. Fascinating post John.. I did see a documentary a while back on the 'taking' of stone from old ruins..'ecclesiastical origins' made me smile :) I loooove your pics No. 2 and 7, I'm such a sucker for a view through an arch :)

  6. Looks a lovely place to visit and interesting too. Thanks for the tour!

  7. Interesting post John - I'm sure you right about the ruins being quarried for the stone. I'm familiar with Roger Bigod' s name through his connections with Bungay where he built a castle the remains of which are still there.

  8. The flint here is so striking, as is the perfect grass up to and around the ruins.

  9. I like the story of the hidden relics and the fact that the stones from the ruin now make up newer houses. I would love to live in a house made from stones from a holy place.

  10. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and interesting facts, John! I love your posts!!


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