Parish Summary: Thetford (Saxon to medieval period)

The Early Saxon period in Thetford is well represented, with a large number of sites and finds on record. The main settlement area was concentrated in the area between Brandon Road and Red Castle (NHER 5746). Three major sites have been identified in Brandon Road. The first of these sites was discovered in 1989-90 in the area where the road bypass crossed the Little Ouse on the south bank (NHER 24849). Evidence of Early Saxon sunken feature buildings and a large number of associated pottery and metalwork finds were recorded in the southern part of the site. This site is extremely important as it represents a well-preserved pre-Danish Saxon settlement close to the site of Late Saxon Thetford.

The second site (NHER 33812), known as Brandon Road West, was excavated during 1998-2000. Again, an Early Saxon sunken-featured building was uncovered along with pits, postholes and ditches which presumably indicated the former presence of other buildings or domestic structures. It has also been claimed that a Saxon cemetery might lie in this area and have been damaged by the building works, but this has not been confirmed. The final site in this area overlies the Roman farmstead discussed earlier (NHER 37158), illustrating the favourability of this location for occupation. This site had six or seven sunken-feature buildings with associated clay ovens and a possible hall. Of more interest is evidence that this area was being used for crafting and manufacturing activities, specifically the production of iron objects.

It is also worth noting that the playing fields site (NHER 5756), which lies within the scheduled Late Saxon town area, also saw use in the Early Saxon period. The remnants of sunken-featured buildings, kilns and pits have been noted along with a large number of small finds, although many of these relate to Middle and Late Saxon habitation.

Similar Early Saxon domestic sites exist in the Redcastle area, with an impressive site being discovered at Redcastle East (NHER 24822). This site had nine sunken-feature buildings and ditches and pits dating to the 6th/7th century. In the Late Saxon period a gravelled street was laid out here leading to a ford, and this was perhaps an expansion of this earlier settlement. The discovery of Saxon burials in the Redcastle area certainly shows a significant presence here, with several skeletons (NHER 5891) retrieved from the water meadows here in 1969. Other burials (e.g. NHER 2757) of this era have also been recorded and these include twelve Early Saxon bodies found in the modern cemetery on London Road (NHER 5828).

Aside from the artefacts found on the settlement sites, a number of other Early Saxon objects have been retrieved from the Thetford. These comprise beads (NHER 5839 and 5862), metal knives (NHER 5859 and 5863), brooches (NHER 29166 and 50118) and ceramic vessels (NHER 5854 and 5857). Of course this is merely a flavour of what has been found, as the density of material from the entire Saxon period is very great indeed. 

Photograph of excavations at Red Castle, Thetford, 1957.

Excavations at Red Castle, Thetford in 1957. (© NCC) 

By the Middle Saxon period substantial settlement was occurring on the south bank of the River Ouse and an earthwork was thrown up at Red Castle (NHER 5746). Excavations here in 1957 revealed that the compound enclosed by the fortifications and earthworks of the castle contained a timber Middle Saxon church that was later rebuilt in stone. This church may have been dedicated to St Lawrence or St Martin. However, despite the knowledge that occupation in this period was focused in the area stretching westwards from Red Castle comparatively little archaeological evidence has been found. Perhaps crucial sites dating to this period merely await discovery.

A Late Saxon bone working site at Ford Place (NHER 5940) shows some remnants of Middle Saxon activity in the form of pits, ditches and post holes. The only other site of significance (NHER 24849) was a continuation of a settlement established in the Early Saxon period. Here, various ditches, pits and postholes were recorded and these features were widely distributed across the area with the previous Roman settlement to the north and the Early Saxon settlement to the south.

Small finds are similarly sparse, with only a couple of hundred pottery sherds from the Middle Saxon period being recovered from the whole of Thetford. The best collection of items from this era were recovered from St Nicholas’ Street (NHER 1134) and these comprise a fine ansate brooch and Carolingian coin. The other Middle Saxon objects that have been retrieved are fairly typical pieces of metalwork such as tweezers (NHER 28612), pins (NHER 5856) and brooches (NHER 32004).

Thetford was perhaps the most important Late Saxon town in East Anglia. A population explosion occurred in the 9th century and the subsequent settlement and craft working activities are well represented amongst the archaeological records for the parish. The success in this period was tied to the navigability of the Rivers Thet and Ouse. Indeed, the economic and military importance of the town was recognised by the Dane Lothbroksson who set up a base here after victory over King Edmund at Hoxne in AD 870.

The Late Saxon town was loosely planned and by the 10th century had a defensive ditched and banked circuit (see NHER 32339, 25296 and 5886) centred in the area around where Bridge Street crosses the Ouse. The area of the town is now scheduled and areas of importance have been noted east of Mill Lane (NHER 5761), along Hilary Road (NHER 5758), in the area of St Mary’s Estate (NHER 5847) and to the north of the Anchor Hotel (NHER 5762). The density of finds and features in the scheduled town precludes any detailed discussion here.

However, the wealth of evidence from this urban core demonstrates that Thetford was a major centre for the manufacture of goods. Metalworking and silver working appear to have been the primary concerns, and sites engaged in these activities have been identified on Bridge Street (NHER 40942) and Bury Road (NHER 34450) from the associated artefacts and debris produced by this process. Areas involved in the production of dyes and weaved goods (NHER 5758), the working of bone (NHER 5940) and leather are also recorded. The latter industry is alluded to by the presence of iron awls and creases. A more obvious indicator of the success of Thetford was the operation of a mint (NHER 5874) which produced coinage for Edgar during 960-70 and for Burgred sometime after 866.

Of course, the most famous industry in Late Saxon Thetford was the production of pottery (see NHER 42573). Vast quantities of Thetford Ware pottery have been recovered (e.g. NHER 17971, 17643 and 16628), although it should be noted that the amount of evidence recovered might be disproportionate to the importance of the industry. In contrast, little evidence regarding Late Saxon agricultural practice has been unearthed. 

Interior of St Mary the Less Church, Thetford during restoration in 2003.

Interior of St Mary the Less Church, Thetford during restoration in 2003. (© NCC) 

At this time a number of churches existed in the town, although many do not survive into modernity. St George’s Church (NHER 5892) originated in this period but later became a nunnery in 1160, and St Margaret’s Church (NHER 5908) was another Late Saxon church to be converted to a new purpose when it became a leper hospital in the medieval period. St Etheldreda’s Church (NHER 1022) survived as a place or worship until the Dissolution but St John’s Church (NHER 5755) had long since been used Augustinian Friars before its demolition at this time. Of the still extant churches in Thetford it is speculated that St Mary The Less (NHER 5909) may have Saxon origins.

A brief mention of Late Saxon artefacts should be made. In spite of the fact that the Vikings held East Anglia from AD 807-917 little evidence of their presence has been found in Thetford. Their impact seems largely related to metalwork styles and objects. A decorated gold ring (NHER 5881) and a metal arrowhead (NHER 40942) are two such finds. However, the diversity of locally produced Late Saxon objects is almost overwhelming. A selection of find types from Thetford includes finger rings (NHER 5875 and 29446), brooches (NHER 29443 and 34380), coins (NHER 15905 and 24073), coin weights (NHER 19800), keys (NHER 34558), an eel spear (NHER 5887), shears (NHER 5871), lamps (NHER 5858), horse harness mounts (NHER 50106) and gaming pieces (NHER 5756). These all demonstrate aspects of domestic life such as manufacturing, trade, personal adornment, recreation and food preparation/procurement. 

Aerial view of castle showing motte.

Aerial photograph of Thetford Castle. (© NCC) 

The very start of the medieval period saw a continuation in the prestige established in Late Saxon times. The Normans built a motte and bailey castle (NHER 5747) in the town in around 1075 with the motte being the highest in England. Defences were also strengthened around Red Castle (NHER 5746) whose earthworks had once formed part of the Late Saxon town defences. The See of East Anglia was also moved to Thetford during the early part of the 11th century, with Bishop Herfast taking over the church of St Mary The Great and using it as the seat of the Bishopric. This church (and short lived cathedral) was situated on the site of Thetford Grammar School (NHER 5750). This bold relocation of power failed and the Bishopric moved to Norwich in 1094-6 thus beginning the decline in the town’s influence.  

Earthwork Survey of Thetford Castle.

Earthwork Survey of Thetford Castle.  (© NCC) 

By the 12th century the medieval era commercial and residential areas shrank with the space being filled by ecclesiastical buildings. A Cluniac priory (Priory of Our Lady) (NHER 5748) was established in 1107-14, with much of the layout and architecture of the compound being based upon the Cluniac abbey at Castle Acre. A Lady Chapel was added to the priory church in the 13th century after the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a vision to locals requesting one to be built. As such the church was an important centre for pilgrims. As was typical this foundation did not survive the Dissolution but the extensive remains of this medieval priory still stand to the west of the town. The Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, a religious order who followed the rule of St Augustine, also established a priory at a site on Brandon Road in about 1140 (NHER 5749). The priory stood on a site previous heavily occupied in the Late Saxon period and survived until demolition at the Dissolution. All that currently stands on the site are the ruins of the nave of the priory church and the foundations of the tithe barn but the area has been scheduled as part of the Late Saxon town. 

Photograph of the ruins of the Priory Church of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford.

The ruins of the Priory Church of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford. (© NCC) 

As mentioned earlier, St George’s Church (NHER 5892) was also transformed into a centre of religious contemplation at this time. It became a Benedictine priory and nunnery in around 1160 and contained a church dedicated to St Benet. A possible hospital building (NHER 46329) belonging to this nunnery has also been noted in the grounds of Nunnery Place. Sadly, the Nunnery was dissolved in 1537 and a mansion was built on the site.

Several hospitals also sprang up to accompany these priories. St Mary's and St Julian's Hospital on Bridge Street (NHER 11945) was built in approximately 1135 for poor travellers and pilgrims but no trace now remains as the post Dissolution ruins were declared a nuisance and pulled down in 1777. A leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalen (NHER 5890) was founded in 1232 by the conversion of an existing church (NHER 6354). Documents show that the hospital was located opposite the ‘Magdalen Cross where the Shropham Hundred court was sometime kept' but the cross is no longer present.

The growth of monastic complexes continued in the 14th century. The cathedral site became a Dominican Friary known as Black Friars (NHER 5750). In 1998, Channel 4’s Time Team investigated the site allowing significant parts of the Friary to be revealed or clarified by a combination of excavation, geophysical survey and architectural analysis. An Austin Friary was also founded in 1387 but by 1538 the Friary was impoverished and dissolved as a consequence. In 1807 a monument was erected where the bodies of Lady Todenham and Lady Hengrave were re-interred when the Friary foundations were removed. The ladies were originally buried in the early 15th century and the monument to them was inscribed with 'In veneration of this consecrated place and of these illustrious persons this altar tomb was erected by George Beauchamp Esq AD 1807'.  

Photograph of the exterior of St Cuthbert's Church, Thetford showing the east end of the building.

The exterior of St Cuthbert's Church, Thetford showing the east end of the building. (© NCC) 

In addition to these religious sanctuaries it is also worth considering the state of Thetford’s churches. Although a number of the medieval churches were lost to demolition or change of use, a number flourished and still survive today. St Peter’s (NHER 5907) basically dates to the 14th century with 15th century remodelling. However, much of the present appearance is due to the rebuilding of the tower, which features handsome chequered flint and stone, and alterations undertaken in 1789. It is worth noting that the pretty ogeed Gothic doorway also dates to this time. Another example is St Cuthbert’s Church (NHER 5914) which is comfortably settled amongst shops and pedestrian streets. The earliest parts date to the 13th century and include the south doorway and piscina in the chancel. However, the church was heavily restored in the 19th century with the tower being rebuilt in 1852 and more general work being carried out in 1862. Work on the medieval churchyard in 2005 found that several tombstones had been displaced suggesting the churchyard was in use during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Obviously, it would be remiss to consider the only significant medieval activities as those of a religious nature. While Thetford was no longer an eminent town the archaeological records attest to everyday subsistence and industry. A watermill, known as Castle Mill (NHER 5930), was in operation and farming/animal rearing occurred. A stock enclosure and drove road relating to this latter activity have been noted from cropmark and earthwork evidence (NHER 30716). Drying ovens and kilns at Mill Lane also suggest that malting was conducted here from the 12th to the 16th century.

These typical industries were supplemented later in the medieval period (and into the early post medieval period) by chalk mining (NHER 13946, 13947 and 17501), quarrying (NHER 42852), sand extraction (NHER 39760) and mineral extraction (NHER 40105).

A couple of the finer buildings in Thetford date to the late medieval period, although the low number of these indicates the weakening of the economy. First and foremost of these is the Ancient House Museum (NHER 5753). This building is half-timbered on the west side and has a watchman's box. It dates to around 1490 but the windows on street front are probably 18th and early 19th century. At some point in the past it appears the building extended further south and the discovery of a simple 17th century doorway suggests that it was not of high status at this date. Ancient House is a Grade I listed building due to the lavish decoration of its beams. Warren Lodge (NHER 2760) dates to the 15th century. It takes the form of a tower house and was probably used as a hunting lodge by the gamekeeper of the Prior of Thetford. The thatched roof burnt off in 1935 and before the fire the lodge had wings attached forming terraces of thatched cottages of 18th/19th century date. The former schoolhouse of Thetford Grammar School (NHER 46351), now in use as a library, was constructed in 1575 before being rebuilt in the 19th century. It is notable for its gabled porch with a reused 12th century stone decoration and the fact that the ground-floor library is divided by a mid 14th century stone arch, representing the south crossing tower arch of the Dominican church.

Finally, as with the preceding Saxon period a huge number of medieval artefacts have been found in Thetford. The breadth of this diversity can be illustrated by finds ranging from terracotta busts (NHER 5901), horseshoes (NHER 28613) and combs (NHER 49819) to seal matrices (NHER 5904 and 17267), Papal bullae (NHER 28728 and 31806) and gold and silver finger rings (NHER 14003 and 39725).

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