Record Details

NHER Number:5909
Type of record:Building
Name:St Mary the Less Church, Thetford


Although not named in Domesday, the church of St Mary the Less was likely founded during the Late Saxon period. It retains a Norman doorway and part of the original north nave wall, but the majority of the existing structure was constructed in the 14th century.
The west tower was reconstructed in the 15th century and further repairs were carried out in the 16th century, but following the Dissolution the church apparently fell into disrepair.
Throughout the post medieval period the church has undergone various periods of dereliction and restoration, being used as a stable during the 17th century, repaired after the Restoration, and various elements rebuilt and enlarged in the mid and late 19th century. The tower was shortened in the mid 20th century and the church became redundant in 1987. Since this time it has become derelict and few furnishings survive except 16th - 19th century memorials and 19th century stained glass. However, a 13th century coffin cover and six 18th to 19th century table tombs remain in the churchyard, all of which have been listed.

Images - none


Grid Reference:TL 8678 8281
Map Sheet:TL88SE

Full description

April 1951. Listed, Grade II*.
Listing Description:
St Mary's Church (aka Church of St Mary the Less or Little St Mary's)
Parish church. 11th century foundation, fabric mainly late 14th century. West tower rebuilt 15th century (donations 1427-1451). Chancel rebuilt 19th century. Flint, re-used ashlar and clunch with ashlar dressings. Chancel in gault brick. Slate roofs. Nave, north aisle and chancel. 3-stage west tower with flushwork plinth and stepped diagonal buttresses. 4-centred west doorway, the arches moulded. Above is a 19th century three-light Perpendicular window. String courses between floors. 2-light cusped belfry windows north and south below crenellated parapet. Gabled south porch with multiple roll-moulded arch. South nave with stepped side buttresses and three 2-light 19th century windows. North nave aisle lit through two 2-light and one 3-light Y-tracery windows, also 19th century. Gabled nave and chancel roofs. Chancel south with two 2-light 19th century windows.
INTERIOR: inner south doorway with 19th century mouldings. 16th century porch roof with rafters and purlins. Canopied statuary niche over door. Wave-moulded tower arch. 19th century tower screen. 12th century north doorway within later aisle: one order of shafts rising to cushion capitals with a roll-moulded arch. 2-bay north arcade of polygonal piers with circular east-west responds and stilted arches. 19th century nave roof with hammerbeams on arched braces. Wave-moulded chancel arch. North chancel chapel with stilted double-chamfered arch to chancel. No capitals. Single-chamfered arch to north nave aisle. Boarded chancel roof of 1891. C19 font. South nave aisle with an exploded tomb-chest embedded in wall to Sir Richard Fulmerston, 1567. Over north doorway a second inscription to Sir Richard, 1566.
Information from (S1).

Norman font removed to St Cuthbert's. Replaced by font in 14th century style but part or all 19th century.
E. Rose (NLA) 9 August 1993.

Church Bells.
St Mary the Less had six bells, which were rung up to the end of the 19th century. Three of the bells were sold in 1959 when the tower was shortened, but the others were placed in storage. The two smallest bells were eventually sent to Blofield (NHER 10265), where they were re-cast. Another was recast for Carlton Colville in 1977. The remainder were destroyed.
See (S2) for further details.
H. Hamilton (NLA), 07 August 2008.

11th Century.
Although not named as St Mary the Less in Domesday, Blomefield (S3) believed that St Mary's is the church noted as belonging to Richard Bigod, founder of the Cluniac priory (NHER 5748). A. Davison (S4) believes that this would explain the link between St Mary's and the Priory which remained until the Reformation, and a pre-Conquest foundation date is supported by evidence of Norman stonework within the fabric of the church.
H. Hamilton (NLA), 08 August 2008.

13th Century.
It is almost certain the St Mary the Less was the church that was valued in 1291, assigned the highest valuation in Thetford at £3 (S4).
H. Hamilton (NLA), 08 August 2008.

14th Century.
In 1368 St Mary the Less was assigned the second highest valuation in Thetford (S4). The majority of church fabric dates to the 14th century (S1), indicating extensive rebuilding.
H. Hamilton (NLA), 08 August 2008.

15th Century.
The west tower rebuilt (S1).
H. Hamilton (NLA), 08 August 2008.

16th Century.
Accounts of works to holdings of the Thetford Cluniac Priory (NHER 5748) include two entries for Thetford St. Mary: repairs to the chancel in 1518 and to the chancel door and gable in 1529 (S5). According to Bloomfield (S3) the church was in some disrepair after the Dissolution (about 1539), but was saved by Sir Richard Fulmerston who wished to be buried there.
H. Hamilton (NLA), 07 August 2008.

Post Medieval Period.
The church became a stable during the Commonwealth period (Civil War) and was defaced and unroofed (S4). The Corporation made repairs after the Restoration (S4), and in the 19th century the chancel was rebuilt (S1).
H. Hamilton (NLA), 08 August 2008.

1959 or 1968.
Top of 15th century tower removed.
E. Rose (NAU).

The last Anglican service at St Mary's took place around 1970 (S6). The building was used again for services for Thetford Roman Catholic Church between 1981 and 1986 (S6). However, in 1987 St Mary's Church was made redundant and since then it has become derelict. In 1991 conversion to offices was considered (S7), but this was not carried out. In 1994 funds were raised to carry out an architectural survey and the building was to be repaired for sale (S8-10). In 1996 a fundraising scheme to restore the church for use as a concert hall and exhibition centre was launched (S11-12). However this effort failed and in 2003 conversion of the church into a private home was being considered (S13). This had not yet taken place in 2008, when it was advertised for sale with planning permission for conversion (S14).
See (S6-14) for further details.
See also photographs taken in 1993 (S15).
H. Hamilton (NLA), 07 August 2008.

1993. Scheduling Additions.
Several monuments in the churchyard have now been scheduled:
1. Coffin cover immediately northeast of chancel of St Mary the Less (SAM 384693). C13. Stone. Rectangular and tapering. Indent of applied Celtic cross in upper face.
2. Group of 5 table tombs immediately southeast of chancel of St Mary the Less (SAM 384694). 1771-1860. Stone slabs laid over brick core. Rectangular with baluster or fluted corners and slab tops. Mainly to Bidwell and Sterne families.
3. Table tomb 15m north of nave of St Mary the Less (SAM 384695). 1778. Stone. Rectangular with baluster corners. Inscription panels north and south illegible except for date.
See (S1) for further details.
H. Hamilton (NLA), 08 August 2008.

March 2003. Field Observation.
The church may be a Saxon foundation. It certainly retains a Norman doorway and part of the north nave wall. The east side and perhaps the base of the tower predate the 15th century work, but the exact date is not apparent. The present appearance of the tower seems to result from work in the second half of the 15th century, and it would appear the nave south wall was rebuilt at the same period. Work was still taking place on the chancel in the 16th century though nothing of this survives. The porch is a Perpendicular remodelling of an older structure. Following decay in the mid 16th century and reinstatement as a burial place in the late 16th, the church was disused in the mid 17th century and restored later in that century. The mid 19th century saw the rebuilding of the chancel and addition of the aisle, as well as the general restoration of the nave. In the late 19th century the chancel was re-roofed - perhaps this is the date of the nave roof also - and the organ chamber added. The tower was shortened in the mid 20th century.
The church is now derelict and few furnishings survive except 16th - 19th century memorials and 19th century stained glass.
See (S16) and (S17) for further details.
E. Rose (NLA) 11 March 2003.

19 April 2004. Field Observation.
A pipe trench was dug from the northwest corner of the nave to a point on the churchyard perimeter directly to the north. The trench was not seen until after it had been backfilled, but the foreman reports that it was 0.7m deep, all in redeposited topsoil. Several small bones, three pieces of tooled clunch, and a large sandstone slab were recovered.
E. Rose (NLA), 20 April 2004.

20 May 2004.
A skull found at Canon's Walk (NHER 40365) was reburied by E. Rose (NLA) at a point directly south of the southwest angle of the tower and 15m north of the boundary wall. Over 1m of topsoil was encountered, mixed with many fragments of 19th century red and white bricks, clunch lumps, glass bottles, iron clamps, and a few small sherds of glazed red earthenware. This confirms the report of the builders who laid the electricity cable and indicates a thorough 19th century levelling of the graveyard.
E. Rose (NLA), 21 May 2004.

January 2010.
The church has fallen into a state of disrepair and emergency funding is being sought.
See (S18) for further details
H. White, (NLA), 13 April 2010

Monument Types

  • CHURCH (Founded, Late Saxon - 851 AD to 1065 AD)
  • CHURCH (In Use As, Late Saxon to 17th Century - 1000 AD to 1649 AD?)
  • FINDSPOT (Medieval to 19th Century - 1066 AD to 1900 AD)
  • STABLE (In Use As, 17th Century - 1633 AD to 1666 AD)
  • CHURCH (In Use As, 17th Century to Late 20th Century - 1660 AD? to 1987 AD)

Associated Finds

  • ANIMAL REMAINS? (Unknown date)
  • HUMAN REMAINS? (Unknown date)
  • COFFIN (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • BOTTLE (Post Medieval - 1540 AD to 1900 AD)
  • BRICK (Post Medieval - 1540 AD to 1900 AD)
  • CLAMP (Post Medieval - 1540 AD to 1900 AD)
  • POT (Post Medieval - 1540 AD to 1900 AD)

Protected Status

  • Listed Building
  • Listed Building
  • Listed Building
  • Listed Building

Sources and further reading

---Unpublished Document: Cattermole, P.. 2000. Inventory of church bells and bell-frames in Norfolk.
---Record Card: NAU Staff. 1974-1988. Norfolk Archaeological Index Primary Record Card.
---Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2008. Concern over dilapidated state of medieval church. 11 December.
---Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. Waiting too long to save church.
---Monograph: Pevsner, N and Wilson, B. 1999. Norfolk 2: North-West and South. The Buildings of England. 2nd Edition. p 703.
---Photograph: 1996. Photograph of Table Tombs at St Mary the Less Church, Thetford. Colour.
---Photograph: 1996. Photogtaph of Church of St Mary the Less, Thetford. Colour.
---Record Card: Clarke, R. R. and NCM Staff. 1933-1973. Norwich Castle Museum Record Card - Late Saxon. Thetford.
---Secondary File: Secondary File.
---Collection: Norfolk Historic Environment Record Staff. 1975-[2000]. HER Record Notes. Norfolk Historic Environment Service.
---Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2015. Listed church could be turned into flats. 1 August.
---Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2015. Tale from the crypt as stolen skull retuned to resting place. 19 September.
<S1>Designation: Historic England. National Heritage List for England. List Entry 1297899.
<S2>Unpublished Document: Cattermole, P.. 2000. Inventory of church bells and bell-frames in Norfolk. p 11.
<S3>Serial: Blomefield, F.. 1805. An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk.. Vol II. p 66.
<S4>Monograph: Dallas, C. 1993. Excavations in Thetford by B. K. Davison between 1964 and 1970. East Anglian Archaeology. No 62. p 213.
<S5>Article in Serial: Harvey, J. H. 1973. Building Works by an East Anglian Priory. Norfolk Archaeology. Vol XXXV Pt IV pp 505-510. p 507.
<S6>Monograph: Osborne, D.. 1996. Thetford: A Century Remembered. From 1900 to the present day.. p 108.
<S7>Drawing: Various. Various. Architectural plans. 1991.
<S9>Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 1994-1995. [Articles on the uncertainty of St Mary the Less, Thetford].
<S11>Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 1996. Bold plan to give new life to historic church. 13 February.
<S12>Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 1996. [Illustration of St Mary the Less, Thetford]. 2 September.
<S13>Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2003. Call to stop old church being sold for home. 27 May.
<S14>Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2008. Grade II home for sale, comes with live-in guests. 25 July.
<S15>Photograph: Batcock, N.. 1983?. CLK 34-5. Church of St Mary the Less.
<S16>Unpublished Document: Rose, E.. 2003. St. Mary the Less. 5909 Thetford, Building Report. Building Report.
<S17>Photograph: Bone, O.. 2003. Church of St Mary the Less - Interior. print, colour. print.
<S18>Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2010. [Articles on the emergency work order issued at St Mary the Less, Thetford].

Related records

MNO10524Related to: 5 table tombs SE of chancel of Ch. of St Mary the Less, Bury Road, THETFORD (Revoked)
MNO933Related to: Church of St Mary the Less Bury Road THETFORD (Revoked)
MNO10525Related to: Table tomb 15m N of nave of Ch. of St Mary the Less Bury Road THETFORD (Revoked)

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