History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford
The Priory of the Holy Sepulchre was founded in about 1148 by William III de Warenne, as home to a community of canons of the Holy Sepulchre.
It was then one of only six such houses in the country, and today these unassuming ruins are the only standing remains in England of this small independent religious order.
The canons were all ordained priests and the order derived from one founded in Jerusalem that aimed to provide aid to pilgrims visiting the supposed site of Christ’s burial.
Before William de Warenne departed on crusade he endowed the priory with the Church of St Sepulchre and an area of adjoining land, together with all the lands, churches, tithes and manorial rights that he held south of the river in Thetford. Despite these, and further grants from the Crown and de Warenne’s successors, the house was never wealthy and records suggest that it declined in later years.
During the later medieval period the recorded number of brethren in the community ranged from eight to just three. After the suppression of the priory the nave of the church survived and was used as a barn, but the east end had been demolished by the 18th century.
In the 19th century the ruins were adapted as an ornamental garden feature with a grotto.
The flint-rubble church nave is all that remains of the priory. Its southern, western and northern walls have survived nearly to roof height, though they have lost most of their architectural detail. The nave is rectangular and without aisles.
Foundations revealed by limited excavations to the east and north show that the church was originally about 53 metres long and cruciform in plan, with rectangular transepts to the north and south of a central crossing. The small priory followed the conventional pattern, with the church on an east–west axis and the cloister and monastic buildings to one side – in this case on the north. None of these are visible today.
The entrance to the church itself is now through the east wall, through an 18th-century doorway that incorporates a large amount of reused stone; sections of decorative mouldings are set into it. The door at the far end of the north wall was originally the door to the canons’ cloister, indicating that this was a priory church rather than a parish church.
Further evidence for this is provided by what is left of the windows. On the south wall they are large and low, as they would be in a parish church, but the remains of the windows are much higher up on the north wall in order to clear the cloister roof on the other side.
A barn door has been inserted into the southern side of the church, and the remains of an apse-ended cart shed can be seen to the south of the ruins.
The now ruinous 19th-century grotto, which originally had a domed roof, is attached to the south-eastern corner of the church.
Hare, JN, ‘The Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford’, Norfolk Archaeology, 37 (1979), 190–200