Thoresby College – Thomas, Edward, and the Ladies

Thoresby College is one of the most complete survivals of late medieval Lynn.

Between Heaven and Hell

In the early sixteenth century, if you had a lot of money (and several of the merchants in the large and thriving port of Lynn did), what could you do with it?

Some of the richer people at this time reflected the age’s concern with the afterlife. They constructed buildings in the genuine hope of especially affecting their experience after death. But how could a building hope to influence the destination of an eternal soul? Read on.

At the time, the theology of the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church (that everyone in England would feel compelled to attend) gave three possible destinations for the soul after death. A very few people would go straight to heaven, a lot more might go straight to hell, but the majority would go to purgatory – a state after death according to Roman Catholic belief in which the souls of people who die are made pure through suffering before going to heaven.

During the Middle Ages and Sixteenth Century there were several ways in which it was believed that a person’s time in purgatory could be shortened. While alive they could regularly confess their sins and be penitent and they could do good works and acts of charity.

People could get time off purgatory for going on a military crusade to the Holy Land and for giving money to the church. In Lynn (latterly King’s Lynn) for example people who gave money in the Twelfth Century to help pay for the building of St Margaret’s received 40 days off after-death punishment.

Having people pray for you while you were alive, and also after your death, was thought to be another effective way of remitting divine chastisement. And, of course, those people perpetually praying for you would need housing. Those who were rich enough thought of ways of investing for eternity.

Plans For Eternity Thwarted After Only 39 Years

Thomas Thoresby was born in 1450 and died in 1510. He was a wealthy Lynn man. He owned several properties in the town and a good deal of farmland where he grazed sheep and cattle (he was nicknamed “Flock Master”).

In his will Thoresby arranged for a number of priests to pray after he had departed:

  • 13 chantry priests to pray for the Holy Trinity Guild
  • 1 priest for the charnel chapel
  • 2 chantry priests to pray especially for him and his family for ‘as long as the world shall endure’.

In theory, such a provision should have lasted longer than a luxury car, or even a large look-out tower on a town building.

Thoresby also left instructions for money to be sent to several religious causes including donations to the four existing friaries in Lynn and to St Margaret’s and St James’s churches. He also paid £60 to the Pope in an attempt to obtain a pardon for the improper celebration of certain feasts.

Thoresby started his building in 1508 and it was completed in 1510, but unfortunately it only survived as a college until 1547 when Edward VI suppressed all the guilds and chantries (endowments for people to pray for your soul) in Lynn. The Mayor and corporation acquired it in 1548 converting it into a merchant’s establishment with living quarters, offices, bakehouses, brewhouses, and warehouse space.

The Door With An Obliterated Story

The entrance door to Thoresby College from Queen Street dates from the early fifteen hundreds (the iron handle may be a later refurbishment). It is a large wooden door with a smaller wicket door.

There is a Latin inscription across the eyeline of the door, just above the smaller wicket entrance. It reads: “Magistri Thomas Thoresby fundatoris huius loci”, and translates as “Master Thomas Thoresby founder of this place”.

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

What is interesting is that at the beginning of the inscription there is a blank area in the inscription plate that has clearly been chiselled away. The inscription that remains is not the complete one that the carver originally created. We know that the original inscription read: “Pro orate anima Magistri Thomas Thoresby fundatoris huius loci”, and would have translated as “Pray for the soul of Master Thomas Thoresby founder of this place”. The “religious thought police” in the years after Thoresby clearly made sure that nothing visible remained referring to prayers for the dead.

The Building Itself

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

Thoresby College seems to have been set out in the conventional medieval college pattern with the entrance in the centre of one side (the east range on Queen Street) with the hall opposite (the west range facing the river).

The north, south, and east ranges would have been two storeys high and one room deep. The big hall of the west range was probably open from the ground floor to the roof. The magnificent medieval timbers are still on display to visitors today.

Although most of the interior of the original building has been completely rebuilt, the old quadrangle of the college has remained as a basis for later alterations.

After The Priests

The building was sold by the Mayor and Corporation who had acquired it in 1548 and for the next two centuries was inhabited by merchants and latterly a lawyer. They almost certainly lived in the north range which contains the best staircase and the most elaborate suite of rooms. This part was remodelled in the eighteenth century and now has a plain stucco front facing the courtyard with a roughly symmetrical arrangement of windows and a central doorway with an ‘Adam’ style wooden door case and pedimental head.

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

The east range fronting Queen Street probably contained shops at one stage. The south range facing College Lane has been used for offices in recent time and probably has been so used from the sixteenth century. The west range and the west half of the south range were converted into a warehouse. Partitions were taken out and a second floor was added to the hall.

During the nineteenth century the building was subdivided into flats.

The College Becomes A School

In his will Thoresby also made provision for 6 boys to receive a free education (the curriculum at the time would have been limited), and land was provided in Gaywood to provide an ongoing income for the master. The original location of the Grammar School was above the Charnel Chapel attached to St Margaret’s (now only visible in outline on the Car Park floor). After that it was moved into The Shambles attached to the church, and then into St James’s Street, before land was found in Gaywood for the new Grammar School (now KES) in the early twentieth century.


The link between education and prayers for the afterlife was not uncommon at the time. For example, Henry Grey, Baron Grey of Codnor (1435 – 1496) asked that Carmelite friars in Nottingham and Lynn be found to teach poor boys ABC and in turn act as one-men chantries and to say commemorative masses.

© James Rye 2021

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  • Kreider, A. (1979) English Chantries: The Road to Dissolution, Yale University Press
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  • Parker, V. (undated) Thoresby College – Hampton Court, King’s Lynn Preservation Trust
  • Parker, V. (1971) The Making of King’s Lynn, Phillimore


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