I hope that you enjoyed our June series on Castles. This month we start our July series on priories and boy are there a lot of ruined ones in England!
Because I know a lot of you are interested in how they came to be left in ruins all over the country, I have also included a short description on religious life in England prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, starting in 1535. This will be a short introduction to a longer form essay I am writing on the topic, which will be published later in the year.
There is no doubt that the period known as the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ was turbulent but what it has left us, is a great many places to visit (all in various starts of disrepair) but all unique and all fascinating. Next month (August) I will be highlighting ‘Abbeys’, but for July we will look at some of the smaller but equally impressive priories that dot the English landscape.
It's the start of the summer holidays here in the UK, with our son now out of school for two months. On Monday we begin the first of our summer breaks, but more on that next week!
Until then, I hope you enjoy Traveling Through history with me.
Savvy Travel Historian
The Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, occurring between 1536 and 1541, constituted a pivotal event within the annals of English history. Instigated by King Henry VIII, this comprehensive measure encompassed the closure, dissolution, and confiscation of monasteries, nunneries, and religious houses throughout the realm. Rooted in multifaceted motivations of a political, economic, and religious nature, the dissolution aimed to consolidate royal authority, diminish potential sources of opposition, and augment the monarch's financial resources by pocketing the considerable wealth and estates held by the Catholic Church. Coupled with Henry VIII's growing disillusionment with the papacy and his aspiration to assert himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, profoundly influenced the course of this transformative process.
Various mechanisms were employed to effect the dissolution, including coerced closures, voluntary surrenders, and confiscations. These actions precipitated the displacement of monks and nuns, while the crown seized valuable assets such as land, edifices, and ecclesiastical treasures. The dissolution's repercussions on English society proved profound, engendering wealth redistribution, the dissolution of religious communities, and the suppression of Catholic rituals and practices.
On the eve of the reformation, the English population comprised mostly Roman Catholics, yet in just ten short years, the predominant religion of the country would be wiped out with barely a whimper, to be taken over by what some historians have described as ‘Catholicism without the Pope’.
In essence, the dissolution of the monasteries represented a pivotal juncture in English history, instigating the formal separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Its enduring impact reverberated across the nation, fundamentally reshaping the religious and political landscape of England, while laying the groundwork for subsequent religious reforms and conflicts.
Further reading can be found in this excellent summary by English Heritage.
July Theme: Priories
Our Lady of Thetford Priory – Norfolk
Thetford Priory was one of the most important monasteries in East Anglia.
Founded in 1103 by Roger Bigod of Norfolk, it was a Cluniac monastic house, which was a movement that began within the Benedictine order at Cluny Abbey in France established in 910.
Located 138km northeast of London (almost 2hrs) and only 55km (less than 1hr) from Cambridge, the property is operated and maintained by English Heritage.
The founder of Thetford Priory, Roger Bigod, asked for permission to establish the priory instead of going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Originally, Thetford was located in an abandoned cathedral church on the Suffolk side of the River Little Ouse and was to act as the church for the new priory. The first group of Benedictines arriving in 1104.
It didn’t take long for the prior to realise that this location was unsuitable due to over crowding by surrounding houses and in 1114 they relocated to the present site on the outskirts of Thetford.
[Looking northward over the infirmary]
Over the centuries, the priory went in and out of debt, often rescued by the reigning king.
The statue of the Virgin Mary was thought to be able to produce miracles, so it quickly became of place of pilgrimage, hence why it was well supported by the crown.
The Dukes of Norfolk
From 1475, patronage was given by the Howards, the Dukes of Norfolk and they continued to look after it right up until the dissolution.
Their castle, Framlingham was not far from Thetford and they began using it as their official place of burial.
Their patronage resulted in the priory becoming very profitable and by 1500 the monks looked after over 7,000 sheep and many rabbit warrens, which provided a good income.
In 1512, John Howard, the 1st Duke, died at the Battle of Bosworth Field and he was buried at Thetford.
In 1524, Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, who survived the Battle of Flodden Field, where he was a commander for Henry VIII, died at 81, and was considered an English hero.
His funeral cortege from the castle to Thetford for burial was one of the most elaborate and large for the time.
Over 900 lords, 3 coaches of friars, food enough to feed 400 hooded mourners and 1900 people in black, commemorated his death. They processed from Framlingham to the priory, some 35 miles.
It is thought the cost of the funeral was almost half his yearly income, at 1300 pounds and was extremely extravagant for the time.
The Dukes of Norfolk are the highest-ranking peers in Britain. Since 1936, they have held the title of Earl Marshal and the current Duke, Edward Fitzalan-Howard played an integral role in organising King Charles III Coronation in May and the funeral service for Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth last year, as the position oversees organising major ceremonial occasions.
When Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy did in 1536, he was buried at Thetford and the last person to be buried there was Thomas Howard, the younger son of the 3rd Duke.
Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk tried hard to stop the dissolution of Thetford Priory, advocating for it to be turned into a collegiate church (one that was secular). It was thought because Henry’s own son was buried there, he might spare it from the dissolutions.
However, despite initially agreeing to turn Thetford into one of only five collegiate churches that were to be saved, he changed his mind. The Duke of Norfolk and the town elders begged for it to be allowed to continue, due to it bringing visitors and wealth to the town, but their pleadings to the King and Thomas Cromwell fell on deaf ears and it was subsequently dissolved in 1540.
In 1540, the duke purchased the property for £1,000 but despite this, moved the family tombs to St Michael the Archangel in Framlingham.
The former priors’ lodgings were converted to a house and was occupied until the early 18thC, while the rest of the site lay in ruins.
The layout of Thetford was pretty standard for priories established around the time.
It contained a church, refectory, dormitory, cloister, infirmary, prior’s lodgings and chapter house.
A large section of the face of the prior’s lodgings still remains.
The internal height can be seen from this entrance way, looking out.
The refectory shows us how vast a scale this area was, where the prior and monks gathered each day to eat their meals.
The cloister area is where the monks would have gathered to meditate, study and exercise. Originally it may have had a roof, providing ample light but equally, it could have just had covered walkways around the edges.
The large church, which also housed a Lady Chapel, can be seen here, which shows the north transept and the presbytery (the part that lies between the choir and the high altar).
Due to the large number of pilgrims that visited, the priory had enough money to rebuild the gatehouse in the 14thC and it (along with the prior’s lodgings) are now Grade I listed buildings.
Visiting the Priory
The site is operated by English Heritage and is free to enter.
Relevant Travel Information:
Open daily all year round.
From 10am - 6pm during summertime and 10am – 4pm in Autumn and winter.
There is a small, but free carpark a short walk to the priory.
To celebrate the 4th of July for our American friends, the Musee de arts et metiers (Museum of Arts and Crafts) in Paris, has a display that shows how the Statue of Liberty was built. It was a gift from the French Government to the American people to celebrate the 100th year of independence.
This Week in History
1776 – US Independence Day
1687 - Issac Newton's work 'Principia' is published by the Royal Society in England. It outlined his laws for motion and universal gravitation.
1841 – Thomas Cook opens their first travel agency
1954 – BBC broadcasts their first news bulletin
1483 – Richard III crowned
1535 – Sir Thomas More (Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor until May 1532 and who was against the break away from the Catholic Church), is beheaded for treason
1456 – 25 years after her death, Joan of Arc is acquitted of heresy
1932 – Don Bradman scores a double century in a cricket game in Canada
1099 – the first Crusade begins in Jerusalem
1889 – The Wall Street Journal publishes for the first time
1540 – Henry VIII annuals his marriage to Anne of Cleves
1900 - The Commonwealth of Australia is established by the British House of Commons
1947 - The engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten is announced (the future Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
1040 - Lady Godiva rides naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry in a bid to have her husband, the Earl of Mercia, lower taxes
1553 - Lady Jane Grey becomes Queen of England. Her reign would last only nine days.
On my Shelf
Want to learn more and go in-depth into the Dissolution of the Monasteries and religious life in England?
Eamon Duffy’s work ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ is compulsory reading for would be historians at university who study the late medieval and early modern periods.
Michelle is a speaker, author, content marketer, historian and mother of 3 boys.
After 25 years in business and as the ‘Content Marketing Queen’ for the past 12 years, she has helped countless small businesses understand and develop their content strategies and focus on a customer first approach.
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