A new book by Francis Young, The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery tells the complete story of the Abbey for the first time. Here Francis Young explains why Bury’s Abbey was so significant.
The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was apparently founded by the Danish king Canute in 1020 to provide a fitting resting place for the patron saint of the English people – the same people he had defeated in battle four years earlier. The Abbey represented a reconciliation between the two peoples of East Anglia – Anglo-Saxons and Danes – and served a wider national role in bringing the warring groups together to forge the new ‘Kingdom of England’. Forty years later, the Abbey was to serve a similar role of bringing together Anglo-Saxon and Norman; William the Conqueror was a major supporter of the Abbey, and even allowed Suffolk men who had fought against him at Hastings to keep their lands. Between 1066 and 1173 – when the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was enshrined in Canterbury Cathedral – Bury enjoyed undisputed pre-eminence as England’s greatest monastery and greatest pilgrimage shrine.
Bury’s best known Abbot is Samson of Tottington, the fiery Norfolk schoolmaster who reformed the monastery, was tempted to go on Crusade with his friend Richard the Lionheart and later made the perilous journey to visit Richard in prison in Germany. There was another side to Samson, however: to ensure he got elected Abbot, he stirred up anti-Semitic hatred and may have provoked the mass murder of 58 Jews in Hatter Street. Later he expelled all the remaining Jews from Bury in 1190. The history of the Abbey is a gory story of murder, intrigue, plague, fire, and a fourteenth-century conflict between the Abbey and townsfolk that erupted into a local civil war involving the full panoply of medieval siege machinery. Today’s heavily fortified Abbey Gate, with loopholes for archers, is a relic of a very violent period in the town’s past.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Bury’s mighty Abbey placed the town at the very heart of national events. The most recent research has shown that the barons did indeed swear an oath at Bury in 1214 to compel King John to sign Magna Carta, and that Abbot Hugh of Northwold was a key figure in holding John to account. Bury was the spiritual base of operations from which Edward I conducted his wars, hoping that St Edmund, the patron saint of the English people, would give him victory against the Scots and Welsh, and in 1447 Bury was the site of a notorious Parliament at which Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was accused of treason – a key step on the way to the Wars of the Roses. When the Abbey was dissolved in 1539 it was not just the end of a great institution; Bury was consigned to the status of a provincial market town which faced an unprecedented welfare crisis, as the Abbey’s schools, hospitals and charitable provision of food to the poor disappeared overnight. Bury lost its representative in Parliament (the Abbot) while the Crown stripped the Abbey of its riches and left local people with nothing. Bury did not recover economically from the disaster of the dissolution until the eighteenth century.
Francis Young was born and brought up in Bury St Edmunds and acquired his love of history early on from exploring the Abbey ruins. He obtained a PhD in History from Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of several books on Bury and Suffolk, including Where is St Edmund? (2014), The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism (2015) and Rookwood Family Papers (2016).