Bury St Edmunds is a gorgeous little market town in Suffolk, East Anglia with a very colourful history.

Originally called Beodericsworth (I’m so glad language has evolved, aren’t you?), the Bury part is a derivation of borough though, given the disputes, riots and witch burnings the town has witnessed, one might be forgiven for assuming Bury reflects its more traditional connotation. The St Edmund bit refers to Edmund King of the East Angles, who was polished off by the Vikings in 869. He went on to be venerated as a saint and a martyr, and his shrine put Bury St Edmunds on the map. so to speak.

St. Edmund was buried here in 903 in the then-thriving monastery, which had been established in 633.  By 925 word of purported miracles performed at the shrine of the martyred king had spread far and wide, and it became a destination place for pilgrimage. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds became one of richest Benedictine monasteries in England until the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and the intervening years saw a lot of corruption, dissent and violence.

A little background: When Williams the Conqueror arrived in 1066 he brought the feudal system with him, under which all estates formally belonged to the Crown. The king, in his wisdom, appointed lords over these vast estates. Pretty good gig, if you could get it, however, the lords were subject to duties and obligations, financial and military, to the king. Down the power ladder were the poor old serfs, who were bound to their lords, and to their lords’ obligations.


Merchants had a special status in the system, as did Jews, relatively large numbers of whom had accompanied William on his conquering journey. Jews were declared to be direct subjects of the king, unlike the rest of the population, which had an upside and downside from a legal perspective. They were not tied to any particular lord; they were, however, subject to the whims of the king, and as we know, along with great power can often come great capriciousness. 

Jews played a key economic role in the country. Back in the day, The Church strictly forbade the lending of money for profit, creating a vacuum in the economy. Judaism did not forbid loans with interest, so the Jews stepped into the breach, being essentially shut out of every other economic opportunity due to discrimination. Needs must, as they say when the Devil drives.

The reputation of Jews as extortionate moneylenders grew, rendering them extremely unpopular with both the Church and the general public. An anti-Jewish attitude was widespread in Europe, but medieval England was particularly so inclined. And back to Royal capriciousness, the King could (and did) levy taxes or confiscate the property of the Jews any time he felt like it. 

Which brings us to March 18, 1190, when two days after another (and more famous) massacre of Jews at Clifford Tower in York, the people of Bury St Edmunds massacred 57 Jews. A very ugly blot on the history of an otherwise quite lovely town.

It gets worse. Later that year, The Abbot successfully petitioned King Richard I for permission to evict the town’s remaining Jewish inhabitants, According to Wikipedia, he opined: “on the grounds that everything in the town… belonged by right to St Edmund: therefore, either the Jews should be St Edmund’s men or they should be banished from the town.”  This was only a taste of what was to come.

On July 18, 1290, King Edward I of England issued the Edict of Expulsion tossing all Jews out of the Kingdom of England, and this decree remained in force for the rest of the Middle Ages, only to be finally overturned when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to England in 1657. Probably the only decent thing Cromwell did.

The ruins of the buildings which housed the thriving Abbey have been incorporated into more modern structures, and the result is really striking. 

One gets such a sense of “if only these walls could talk” because the Abbey has a fascinating story to tell. It was a most successful venture in its heydey. By 1327, it owned all of West Suffolk. The Abbey held the gates of Bury St Edmunds. The monks charged tariffs on every economic activity, including the collection of horse droppings in the streets. The Abbey even ran the Royal Mint.

During the 13th century, the general economic prosperity lulled the local populace into benign acceptance of this abuse of power, but by the 14th century, resistance was heating up. The year of 1327 seems to have been an inflection point and the Great Riot ensued. Fed up with the overwhelming power, wealth and corruption of the monastery, which oversaw nearly every facet of local life with a view to enriching itself, the monks received some very angry attention. Several of them lost their lives and many buildings were destroyed. January saw the townspeople forcing a charter of liberties on the monks, and when the monks reneged, the locals attacked again in February and May.

 

The riot destroyed the main gate and a new, fortified gate was built in its stead. Things seemed to settle down for a bit, but 1381 saw a return of discontent. and during the Great Uprising, the Abbey was once again sacked and looted.

This time, the Prior was executed; his severed head was placed on a pike in the Great Market (a fate I have intimated may befall our contractor if the much-delayed renovation to our ensuite and walk-in closet is not completed by the end of October). But I digress…

St. Mary’s Church now sits on the site of the former abbey, surrounded by gravestones. 

I love a good cemetery crawl, and this one has some deliciously horrid gravestones. Check out the skeleton on this one.

Crowded together, covered in ivy, they lean against time and weather.

Inside the church is the tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and sister of Henry VIII. She was re-buried, six years after her death, having been moved from the Abbey after her brother’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. 

We didn’t take any interior shots of the church, but I found a video online for anyone who is interested. It looks strikingly similar to St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, which we did visit.

Just to really confuse things, the Cathedral rests on the former site of St. Denis’ church, built in 1065 within the precincts of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Yes, two churches within a block or so of each other. Today it stands on the edge of the gorgeous gardens, where I photographed this cheeky little guy:

Formally planted beds were bursting with colour.

I was amused to see this mother hauling back her adventurous offspring on leading reins, which are very common in Britain. Very practical, though would probably lead to an arrest if employed in North America.

In the early 12th century Bury St Edmunds’ Abbot had wanted to make a pilgrimage along the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela. Thwarted in that endeavour, he rebuilt St Denis’s instead and dedicated the new church to Saint James.

In due course, St James’ parish church became St Edmundsbury Cathedral when the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was formed in 1914. 

In 1503 the current church was largely rebuilt in the Perpendicular style by John Wastell, a master mason who also worked on the famous King’s College, Cambridge, which we have just visited. Absolutely stunning – I’ll do a write up on that one soon.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw more alterations, carried out by the ubiquitous George Gilbert Scott,  including the new chancel and a much-decorated hammerbeam roof.

The tower is extremely recent, having been added as part of the Millenium project.

This is one of two organ cases, which are located in the North and South transepts, respectively.

Kneelers await the next service. They’re nice and thick for the “comfort” of the attendants.

This is the top bit of an extremely ornate baptismal font. You’d think it would scare the living daylights out of any baby, wouldn’t you?

The cloisters of the Cathedral have a modern vibe and were completed in 2009. They’re a wonderful blend of old and new.

Back outside, we walked through the Abbey grounds and again admired the ruins incorporated into occupied buildings.

We found this plaque commemorating Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, who founded Martha’s Vineyard. A bit of home away from home! I dug into this a bit and learned that during the first half of the 17th century, the borough of Bury St Edmunds was imbued with Puritan sentiment. By 1640, several families had resettled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In fact, the mighty Winthrop family has its roots at the grammar school in Bury St Edmunds where John Winthrop the Younger, who became governor of Connecticut, received his early education.

It seems that Bury St Edmunds didn’t miss out on any violent trend du jour, as it was also the setting for witch trials between 1599 and 1694. You would never imagine it from the bucolic and tranquil atmosphere it exudes now.

We finished up with a wonderful lunch at the aptly named Really Rather Good coffee shop. 

Which is just ’round the corner from the Angel Hotel

An antique car decorated for a wedding awaited the bride.

Today, Bury St Edmunds is probably best known as the hometown of Greene King Brewery, founded by Benjamin Greene (ancestor of the illustrious author Graham Greene) in 1790. Their premium bitter Abbot Ale harks back to the three breweries in the original Abbey where each monk was entitled to eight pints a day. It’s a wonder anything got done. Though judging by the extent of the self-dealing and overweening influence the Abbey seemed to engage in, perhaps it’s a good thing they were half-soused most of the time!

I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.

Next
Previous