Roger Bigod had accompanied William the Conqueror throughout the Norman invasion of 1066, but his act for a community of Cluniac monks in a remote Norfolk village was a more peaceful affair altogether. It was Bigod, by now an old man, who founded Thetford Priory, and who laid the foundation stone of the new church in September 1107 before he died the following week.
By the end of the 12th century Thetford Priory church and many of the domestic buildings had been completed, but extensive improvements and elaborate additions were carried out almost to the end of its monastic life. Largely due to the legend of powerful miracles surrounding an image of 'Our Lady' that once adorned Thetford Cathedral but was later moved to the priory, the monastery became a noted place of pilgrimage for the sick and this, in turn, increased the wealth of Thetford Priory. A beautiful Lady Chapel was incorporated at the north east end of the church as a result of one of the 'miracle cures', and this was further extended when the presbytery was lengthened and squared off during the 13th century.
A very different picture greets the unsuspecting visitor today. Thetford Priory is now a sadly ruinous site with few remains standing to any height. The fragments that have survived are little more than eroded lumps of barely recognisable structures showing nothing of their former ornate glory, the rest consists of column bases, reconstructed stone altar bases, and a few scattered relics such as a small oven in the sacristy.
However, the whole plan of the Thetford Priory was determined through a major excavation of the site and it is easy to follow the ground markings. Two fairly substantial structures have survived, although one is a complex mix of architectural styles and building periods. Now a shell, standing to just above first floor level, the prior's lodging range is a confusion of re-used materials, and major restructuring after the Dissolution in 1540. Most of the medieval features are hardly distinguishable in this substantial 14th century building that displays everything from 12th to 16th century windows, arches and doorways.
More impressively, the 14th Thetford Priory Gatehouse stands to full height, missing only its roof and parapets. Appearing virtually intact from the outside, this three-storey building has octagonal towers either side of the wide segmental arch in the south wall, and is faced with an eye-catching design of knapped flintwork and stone dressings.
Having retained close connections with the Earls and Dukes of Norfolk (Roger Bigod's son, Hugh, was created the first Earl of Norfolk in 1141), Thetford Priory became the family burial place up to the time of the Dissolution. Around the site of the priory church there is still some evidence of the many tombs and, during the excavation, some delicately worked pieces of a tomb in Renaissance style were found, presumed to be for King Henry VIII's son.
About a mile or so from Thetford Priory is another medieval structure, thought to be the house of the prior's gamekeeper. Although standing today in an enclosed forest, the late 14th century/early 15th century square building known as 'Thetford Warren Lodge' can be viewed from the perimeter fence. Much closer to Thetford Priory is the site of another small priory, belonging to the Church of the Canons of The Holy Sepulchre. Only a quarter of a mile south of Thetford, the 14th century remains of this priory consist mostly of rough flint and rubble walls along the nave of the church. Although there is so little to see, it is well worth a trip as they are the only remains in England of a building of this religious order, and there is quite a bit of history available.