Thomas Of Lynn

Thomas Thoresby

Thomas Thoresby was born in Lynn Episcopi (Bishop’s Lynn later King’s Lynn) some time in 1450, though the exact date is unknown. He died 59 or 60 years later in More in Shropshire, having become one of the Lynn’s most important and influential citizens.

Thomas was the son of Henry and Elizabeth Thoresby and he was born into one of the town’s richest families. His father had been a Lynn mayor and was a veteran of the Baltic trade. Before his death in June 1462 Henry had ordered the building of the Bell Tower on St Margaret’s Church. Henry was three times mayor of the town and an MP. The family owned land in West Lynn, Fincham, Dersingham, Gayton Thorpe, Congham, Roydon, Mintling, and Gaywood.

Like his father before him Thomas took an active part in the economic and political life of Bishop’s Lynn. He was an alderman (principal officer) of the Trinity Guild, and was elected mayor three times (1477, 1482, 1502).

Thomas is described as a “flockmaster”. A large part of his income came from sheep. (In his will Thomas left his wife 100 ewes and his son 1000 wethers and 1000 ewes). He would have been involved in the lucrative export of wool to the low countries. After the temporary collapse of the market due, in part, to war, he would have have sold his wool to English cloth-makers.


In 1473-74 Thomas’s status in the town can be seen from the fact that he was one of the four town merchants designated to act as intermediaries in the discussions relating to King’s Lynn in the negotiations at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Edward IV was negotiating peace with the Hanse (leading to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474). For the first time the Hanse were to be allowed to build a steelyard in Lynn. (See Hanseatic League and King’s Lynn 1.)

Danzig wanted a site on the Chequer (now King Street) in Lynn which would give them a prime quay on the first approach to the town from the sea. The negotiations initially faltered as too many merchants of Lynn would have had to agree to sell their houses – the future mayors of 1483-84 and 1484- 85 among others had houses in the Chequer – and the fact that this street was close to the common staith may have also been a consideration. Thomas helped resolve the problem when a property further along the river into Lynn with its own quay, opposite the church of St Margaret, became available.

Thoresby held the royal farm of the lordship of Castle Rising from Richard III. This included certain tolbooth rights, with Robert Braybroke, one of the port’s customs officials. On 26 February 1484, Thomas was asked to give specific service to Richard III, by investigating why the export of grain from Lynn and the east coast ports to London and elsewhere was so low. There had been bad harvests in 1480 and 1483. In a time of shortage, the grain was much needed throughout the country. Thomas, and three of the king’s yeomen were granted powers to arrest people and seize goods.

Rubbish, Taxes, Pavements

Thomas Thoresby was an assiduous attender of “town council” meetings.

When he was mayor 1478-79 he was behind an important drive to clean up the town. This involved the collection of individual taxes from citizens to pay for rubbish collection and urging people to use designated “muckhills”.

When he was again mayor 1482-83 he oversaw the repair of pavements – again at the expense of the adjoining houses. Fines of 1d or 2d a yard were issued.

The Afterlife


Thomas Thoresby made his mark in Lynn for the first time in 1472 when he paid for the rebuilding of part of the south aisle of the chancel of St Margaret’s, including St Stephen’s Chapel (no longer in evidence).

Thoresby is most remembered today because of his legacy building in Queen Street in King’s Lynn. This building was to house priests to help ease the souls of selected individuals through their afterlife. In 1500 he founded the Thoresby College (sometime known as Trinity College) as a home for 13 priests. The priests were to pray for the members of the Guild of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, for Thomas Thoresby and his family, and one of them was to educate ‘6 poor people’ in grammar and song.

Thoresby College Door,  King’s Lynn 
Photo © James Rye 2021

However, as theology changed under Henry VIII and Edward VI, belief in purgatory was abandoned. And if there was no purgatory through which to speed the dead, then no one needed to pay for priests to help them on their way. Over the front doorway the words “Pray for the soul of Thomas Thoresby” were originally written in Latin. However, after Edward’s VI’s closing of all chantries in 1547, the words “Pray for the soul of …” (Pro ora anima …) were removed and Thomas’s original intention for the building came to an end. (See Lynn lost a Chantry.)

Financial Bequests

In his will he left bequests to many religious and charitable institutions which he doubtless believed would have helped gain him prayers during his afterlife.

These include:

  • Vestments were given to 120 parish churches near Lynn, costing 20s each.
  • Donations were made to the Carmelites of Lynn and to the nunneries at Shouldham Priory, the Cistercians at Marham Abbey, Blackborough’s Benedictine Priory, and the Augustinian Priory at Crabhouse.
  • £60 was used to purchase of a pardon from the pope, granting remission of sins (for three years) to all people who came to St Margaret’s church and made their confession there at the four feasts of the year. (Those who benefited were expected to make a donation and the proceeds were to be divided between the curate’s repair of the chancel and the churchwardens’ repair of the nave.)
  • The ‘commons’ in Lynn were to have 100 marks in money to remember his soul for ever.
  • St Margaret’s also benefitted from a suite of white velvet vestments costing £40, and £10 for a new ‘fount’, and the battlement of the new aisle there was to be finished according to the covenants he had already made with the workmen.
  • Land was made available to support the ongoing expense of the College.
  • His household was to be maintained at his cost for a year, his servants were rewarded, and his priest was to be supported at university if he would go.

© James Rye 2023

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