If you’ve never visited the Suffolk region of southern England, you may not have heard the name of Bury-St-Edmunds. But this small medieval town is home to one of the most important and powerful monasteries of the Middle Ages.
The Abbey compound is now in ruins, and aside from two rather impressive gatehouses little of the medieval structures remain intact. But at its height, the Bury-St-Edmunds cathedral was once the second-largest church in the world after the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City .
On top of being the site of one of the most impressive ecclesiastical buildings in medieval England, Bury-St-Edmunds (affectionately known as “Bury”) was also “the seat of royal sanctity” as the home of St Edmund’s shrine. St Edmund was the guardian, protector, and Anglo-Saxon patron saint of all England, and his shrine was thus a place of immense power and influence throughout the Middle Ages.
The pivotal role that Bury and its religious community played in England’s history earned Bury-St-Edmunds Abbey a reputation as “the shrine of the king, the cradle of the law.” This became so much a part of Bury’s identity that a plaque bearing these words was erected on the cathedral walls during the Victorian era.
From the Norman Conquest to the Magna Carta , the monks of Bury-St-Edmunds Abbey were in the thick of almost every political power struggle in medieval England. And so, the story of Bury-St-Edmunds is a vital part of the story of England.
Putting Bury-St-Edmunds on the Map
The name “Bury-St-Edmunds” of course comes from its fame as the resting place of St Edmund, a great English king and martyr. St Edmund was infamously killed by the Danes during the invasion of the Great Heathen Army in 869.
The Martyrdom of King Edmund (Brian Whelan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Historians believe Edmund was initially buried near to the place of his martyrdom, which was likely in the vicinity of the modern town of Hoxne. His remains were transported in the 10th century to a new church built just for such a purpose.
Prior to Edmund’s arrival, the town had been known as Beodricesworth, named after Beodric, a man who had been lord of the town in “ancient days.” The land had already been in use as a religious site since the early 7th century, originally consecrated to the Virgin Mary . Her cult remained of great importance at Bury for centuries, with a new Lady Chapel consecrated to the Virgin Mother was built in 1225. But it was significantly overshadowed by the new cult of St Edmund.
The foundation of the monastery is shrouded in mystery, with no concrete evidence of its exact founding date known to exist. The popular text Miracles of St Edmund by Hermann the Archdeacon, attributed the founding of Bury Abbey to King Canute in the year 1020, and this is now generally accepted as its foundation.
In the decades prior to the Norman Conquest, the patronage of King Edward the Confessor brought immense wealth and prominence to the monastery. Edward showed particular fondness for St Edmund, not only as England’s principal royal saint but claimed by Edward as a distant kinsman. It is said that Edward would never approach the Abbey on horseback, but would always dismount some distance away so that he could walk the remainder of the journey on foot to mark his devotion.
Edward the Confessor was also canonized as an English Saint (Aidan Hart / CC BY 3.0 )
He also lavished royal favor upon the religious community who were guardians of Edmund’s shrine. Edward granted a package of land in Suffolk to the Abbey which would be known as the Liberty of St Edmund. This land included rights such as freedom from direct taxation and judicial freedom, that essentially made Bury Abbey an independent institution.
The Liberty of St Edmund was so well-protected it remained in existence as a legal and administrative unit until it was abolished in the Local Government Act of 1974. It was also under Edward’s reign that the name changed from Beodricesworth to Bury-St-Edmunds. Edward was the first to refer to it as “St Edmunds Bury” where it has previously had only ever been referred to as “St Edmund’s stow at Beodericisworth” or “St Edmund’s church”.
The town of Bury was built up around the monastery, and largely remains organized today as it was in the 1080s. Abbot Baldwin oversaw the building of a grid pattern centered around the monastery that can still be seen in the layout of the town.
Bury and the Norman Conquest
The community at Bury-St-Edmunds was in a unique position at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Only one year earlier in 1065, King Edward’s personal physician, a man named Baldwin, had been appointed as abbot of the monastery at Bury. At this point in time, Baldwin was the only senior French cleric in all of England.
When William the Conqueror took the throne for the French Normans, Baldwin continued to serve as royal physician. It was his position within the new Norman regime that allowed him to bring the Bury monastery through the Conquest relatively unscathed.
St James Cathedral in Bury can trace its origins back to Baldwin (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Prior to his appointment at Bury-St-Edmunds, Baldwin had been a member of the community at Saint-Denis in Paris, and it is very likely he sent them some of Edmund’s relics. There was evidence of a shrine to St Edmund constructed in the abbey at Saint-Denis in Paris in this period.
No doubt St Edmund’s reputation as protector of those at sea made him an ideal patron for the Normans’ cross-channel empire, but his prominence is largely indebted to the efforts of the Abbot to promote his cult. There is also evidence that Baldwin journeyed across Europe, distributing Edmund’s relics and promoting his veneration. Hermann the Archdeacon writes in the Miracles of St Edmund that Baldwin:
“set out for Rome, he took with him some of the aforesaid relics of the saint, giving a share of them to many people, both to inculcate pious devotion and to ensure that the saint’s good reputation would grow in the opinion of the faithful.”
As a result, Bury gained further wealth and prestige in the aftermath of the Conquest, as William the Conqueror bestowed personal favor upon Bury-St-Edmunds and other Norman nobles followed suit. Bury was the only English church in which a Norman aristocrat was buried, and it was also the only English church to be granted property in Normandy in this period.
By the time the Domesday Book was compiled in the 1080s, Bury-St-Edmunds was among the six wealthiest and most influential monasteries vying for primacy in England, due in no small part to their prestigious patron. St Edmund was the only English saint to whom the Conqueror showed any devotion and his cult was more widely disseminated in Normandy than any other English saint.
Bury and the Monarchy
The monks at Bury recognized early on that the prestige and prosperity of their church depended on promotion of St Edmund’s cult, and careful cultivation of Edmund’s image was an essential part of their success. Almost every narrative ever written about St Edmund was commissioned by the Bury community.
Hermann’s Miracles of St Edmund (written between 1070-1090) created an image of Edmund as “king of kings” and “father of the fatherland” which, combined with his existing persona as the ideal of Christian kingship and spiritual victory, gave him enormous appeal. There had been some attempts within the religious community to push for St Augustine as patron saint of England, but it was Edmund who held greater appeal outside the religious community and it was to Edmund that the English monarchy showed most devotion.
The ruins of the Abbey today ( Colin & Linda McKie / Adobe Stock)
The Angevin kings of England who succeeded the Normans were highly reverent of St Edmund. Richard I sent many gifts to the abbey at Bury and would often come to pray at Edmund’s shrine before undertaking sea voyages or military campaigns to ask for the saint’s protection.
His predecessor Henry II is also said to have undertaken his campaigns under the protection of St Edmund and attributed his many military victories to the saint’s intervention. King Henry III was dedicated to veneration of St Edmund, also paying frequent visits to Bury Abbey and attending St Edmund’s feast days with the monks.
That is not to say that Bury Abbey always enjoyed the favor of the monarchy. King John’s attitude towards the Bury community was lukewarm at best, as their Abbot Samson had fought against him in the civil war with his brother Richard I, when John was still the Count of Mortain.
According to the chronicle written by Jocelin of Brakelond, the Abbot of Bury-St-Edmunds marched into battle at Windsor in support of the royalists and under the banner of St Edmund “where he wore armor…and appeared with his own standard, leading many knights.” Bury Abbey was also shown special Papal favor during the interdict of 1208-1214, during which John himself was excommunicated from the church by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The relationship between King John and the monastery soured even further when Samson’s successor, Hugh of Northwold, showed support for John’s barons in their attempts to force the king into signing the Magna Carta. Historian Roger of Wendover records the oath the barons took, which was made at the shrine of St Edmund in Bury Abbey, that “if the king refused to grant these liberties and laws, they themselves would withdraw from their allegiance to him.”
Copy of the Magna Carta held at the British Library (Earthsound / Public Domain )
It was the role of the Bury community in the signing of the Magna Carta into law that earned Bury its reputation as “the shrine of the king, the cradle of the law”.
Bury at War and at Peace
Having taken part in physical battle during the Angevin civil war and shown moral support for the barons against King John, the Bury monks also took part in the Second Baron’s War by supporting Simon de Montfort and the “Disinherited,” once again straining their relationship with the Crown. Although the Bury monks don’t appear to have taken an active role in the war of 1264-67, they did tout Simon de Montfort as a hero and a martyr and proclaimed that his body was capable of performing miracles after his death.
There are surviving records of the Abbot, also named Simon, being punished by King Henry III for his role in “guarding the coast” during the war. He was accused of showing favor to the rebel barons, but no concrete evidence exists of any active disloyalty to the king on the part of the monks.
Bury Abbey enjoyed the renewed favor of the Crown with the reign of King Edward I , called Longshanks, who succeeded Henry III in 1272. Loyalty to Edward among the Bury monks was fostered by his frequent visits.
Bury Abbey supported Edward’s right to rule Scotland and Wales. A letter is recorded in Bury’s chronicles that Edward sent to “the most important religious houses in England” (including Bury) requesting his right to the Scottish throne be set in permanent record. Further, after subduing the Scottish rebellion Edward came to hold parliament at Bury.
Likewise, when the Welsh rebellion of 1294-95 was put down Edward I received submission from the defeated Welsh king at Bury-St Edmunds, during high mass on the feast of St Edmund.
Edward I was very invested in protecting the rights of Bury Abbey. He returned some lands that had been confiscated by Henry III to Bury after a vision of St Edmund came to him. In return for respecting their liberties the Bury monks invoked St Edmund’s protection over the king, as well as voluntarily paying taxes to support the defense of Edward’s lands.
Bury’s annual income around the end of the 13th century was quite substantial, and the shrine of St Edmund alone brought in around £40/annum, roughly equivalent to £30,000 today. At the time this would have been considered a large fortune.
It was unfortunately not long after Edward I’s reign that the heyday of Bury Abbey would come to an end. In 1327, the town of Bury-St-Edmunds rose up against the monastery after the abbey had rebuffed their attempts to make the shrine of St Edmund more public by having the local parish church take over custodianship.
The ruins of the Abbey in the heart of the town (John Fielding / CC BY 2.0 )
Angry at the monks for their selfishness, the townspeople rioted and destroyed large parts of the monastery. Despite receiving support from King Edward II , who took the abbey and its community under his protection during the uprising, the prestige of Bury Abbey was permanently damaged and it never recovered its former status.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1539, Bury Abbey was stripped of all valuable artefacts and materials and what was left became a quarry for local builders. Over the centuries it slowly turned into the bare ruins that are today left to mark the site of what was once the glory of English monasticism.
Top image: The gatehouse of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Source: Charles / Adobe Stock.
By Meagan Dickerson
Gransden, Antonia. 2007. A history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256: Samson of Tottington to Edmund of Walpole. Boydell Press.
Gransden, Antonia. 2015. A history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1257-1301: Simon of Luton and John of Northwold. Boydell Press.
Licence, Tom, ed. 2014. Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest. Boydell Press.
Young, Francis. 2016. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: history, legacy and discovery. Lasse Press.