For over four hundred years, Bury St Edmunds has been a borough, meaning that it is not just a town but a town with a royal charter.
In the thirteenth century, large and prosperous towns all over England began receiving charters from the king confirming them as boroughs, which meant that local tradesmen could form a council and elect a mayor. The mayor and council (known as a corporation) had responsibility for such matters as maintaining the streets, walls and gates of a town and regulating its markets, ensuring that people paid rent for stalls and used authorised weights and measures. However, in some towns the church was so powerful that it prevented the formation of a council or the election of a mayor.
One such town was Bury St Edmunds, which was completely dominated by the great Benedictine abbey. In spite of the fact that the very word ‘Bury’ means ‘borough’, and the town’s rapid growth as a result of the wealth brought by pilgrims to the shrine of St Edmund, the monks only allowed the citizens to form a guild headed by an ‘alderman’, and not a proper council. In reality, the alderman was little more than an ambassador of the townsfolk to the monks, and the abbot had the power to veto his election. The abbots were so afraid that the aldermen might attempt to claim more power that when the alderman had documents publicly read out that confirmed the freedoms of the townsfolk in 1297, he was thrown into gaol and fined in spite of the fact that the documents were legally valid.
By 1305 relations between the alderman and the abbot were so poor that the townsfolk were withholding the payment of tolls and taxes. When a group of angry townsfolk threw stones at the roof of the abbey church, the alderman and burgesses were fined and ordered to give the abbey 50 barrels of wine.
In 1327 a full-scale rebellion broke out against the abbey; the alderman Richard of Berton was deposed when he refused to support the rebels and replaced by his brother John of Berton, who led a guerilla campaign against the abbot and monks for the next two years, attacking, ransacking and burning parts of the abbey and its manors. In his most audacious act of all, the rebel alderman kidnapped the abbot from Chevington in 1327, shaved off all his hair, and took him in a sack to Holland.
John of Berton escaped retribution by seeking sanctuary at Babworth Friary (today’s Priory Hotel) where according to the law he could not be touched because he was on church land. However, dozens of the townsfolk died in the town’s struggle to free itself from the abbey – we do not have exact numbers, but when a posse of the Duke of Norfolk’s men entered Bury to quell the rebellion there were bodies piled high against the Abbey Gate.
The abbey’s response to the rebellion was to dissolve the town’s Guild Merchant completely, forcing the Candlemas Guild to take over and elect an alderman. In 1378 the alderman again supported a rebellion, this time by one of the monks, Edmund Bromefield, who took over as abbot. However, after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 the aldermen there was no hope of successful rebellion against the abbots, and the aldermen were restricted to legal campaigning against the abbot’s abuses of power.
When the abbey was dissolved in 1539 all of the powers of the abbot reverted to Henry VIII, which did not do much to improve matters for the townsfolk. The dissolution of the Candlemas Guild in 1548 made matters even worse than they had been in the Middle Ages, taking away the last vestiges of local government and leaving the townsfolk at the mercy of the hereditary stewards of the Liberty of St Edmund, the Bacon family of Redgrave, who had stepped into the vacuum left behind by the abbots.
Local gentry consistently resisted the establishment of local government in Bury, which they saw as a threat to their own power. The townsfolk’s struggle with the Bacons finally ended in 1606 when the townsfolk finally managed to persuade James I to grant the town a charter and erect a corporation with a mayor. However, James still refused to go as far as allowing the head of Bury’s corporation to call himself a mayor, and he remained an alderman.
Bury did not gain a mayor until a new charter was granted by Charles II in 1684, but lost the title four years later after the Catholic mayor, John Stafford, was deposed in the Glorious Revolution and an older version of the charter was revived. The mayors continued to be called aldermen until 1835 when a new charter revived the mayoral title.
In 1974 St Edmundsbury Borough Council became a district council covering a large area of West Suffolk, as a result of which the Privy Council had to issue a new charter to enable Bury to retain its borough status and continue to have a mayor. However, in 2018 it was announced that St Edmundsbury Borough Council would merge with Forest Heath District Council to create a new West Suffolk Council. It is currently unclear whether the Privy Council will be asked to issue a new royal charter to allow Bury St Edmunds to retain its borough status. If Bury ceases to be a borough it will revert to its status in the Middle Ages as a town forbidden the trappings of civic pride, an astonishing development in the history of a proud town. It will mean that Bury’s market will no longer be under the control of the borough for the first time since 1606, and it will mean that the site of the Abbey will no longer be owned by the borough. Bury’s long history as a self-governing town will have come to an end.