Bury St Edmunds Through the Ages: A History from Saxon Times to the Present Day
A concise but detailed history of Bury St Edmunds and the surrounding villages. We’ve detailed all the important key events and historical connections without focusing too much on the day-to-day life.
If you want a short-and-sweet account of the major facts, then please see our Historical Highlights.
Saxon Saints – St Sigebert and St Edmund
633: St Sigebert, a younger son of King Raedwald (of Sutton Hoo fame), the first Christian king of the East Angles and the first English king to be baptised, founded a monastery here in the days when the town was called Beodericsworth (meaning house of Beodric, a previous lord of the manor). Sigebert retired to the monastery (the first English king to do so) and left the throne to his son, Egric. Then, King Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, invaded East Anglia in the early 640s and St Sigebert was called upon to defend his people (and his son). Reluctantly, he went onto the battlefield but refused to bear arms and only carried a rod; his army was defeated and he was killed.
902: King Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great) won a battle against his cousin Aethelwald (who was challenging his right to rule). The battle took place in the Fornham St Genevieve and Fornham All Saints area.
9th-11th Centuries: St Edmund was born about 841 AD, possibly in Nuremberg, Germany, possibly the son of King Alcmund of Saxony, possibly arriving in England at Hunstanton (Norfolk) in about 865 AD. He became King of East Anglia on Christmas Day 845 AD when he was crowned at Bures, aged about 14. He was killed by the Danes on 20th November 869 at a place generally thought to be Hoxne, Suffolk: when he refused to renounce his Christian faith, the Danes tied him to a tree, whipped him, shot his body full of arrows and then decapitated him and flung his head into the woods. According to legend, his head was later discovered being guarded by a she-wolf and calling “here, here, here”! His reunited head and body were originally housed in a small chapel near Hoxne but, 33 years later in 903, his body was brought to Bury – it was miraculously undecayed, it had healed itself of all arrow wounds and his head and neck were now joined together (the sure sign of a miracle). He was initially interred in a wooden church in the town; in 1095 it was re-interred in a stone church.
1010-1014: King Edmund is now revered as a saint, but his ghost has a decidedly vindictive and unchristian history!
In 1010, when the shrine’s guardian (Alwyne) took his remains to London to safeguard them from rampaging Vikings, an Essex priest who refused to help them on the journey had his house burnt to the ground.
In London, a Viking who mocked Edmund’s saint credentials was struck blind.
Then, when Alwnye took his remains back to Bury and those vicious Vikings besieged the town, St Edmund’s ghost – perhaps forgivably – intervened again and killed Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark. Sweyn was no great loss, mind you: he was notably ruthless and vicious, even for those times. In 1014, he surrounded the town and threatened to destroy both church and clergy unless the hated Danegeld was paid – he apparently also foolishly said some unwise words about St Edmund as well. Suddenly, Sweyn had a crystal clear and terrifying vision: St Edmund was on a ghostly horse and aiming a ghostly lance at his heart. In front of all of his men, he screamed for help against the terrifying ghost and then was struck dead (a heart attack? convulsions?) on the siege field.
For many centuries, belief in St Edmund’s avenging ghost protected the abbey and its treasures.
For example, in the 12th century, the Barons of the Exchequer did not dare take the shrine’s gold and jewels to contribute to Richard I’s ransom.
In the 13th century, King Edward I wanted to tax the abbey’s property and the abbot cleverly said that he “would place this matter between Edmund the martyr and yourself”: that night King Edmund dreamt of Sweyn Forkbeard and then backtracked on his proposal!
1014-32: Sweyn’s son, King Canute, had been present at the siege when St Edmund’s ghost had killed his ruthless father. Whilst he went on to conquer all of England, he treated Bury St Edmunds with kid gloves. In 1032, he established a Benedictine abbey with 20 monks to replace Sigebert’s small monastery, laid his crown upon King Edmund’s shrine and then exempted the townsfolk from paying the hated Danegeld – on condition that they paid taxes to the abbey. This made the abbey the wealthiest in England for many years.
1020-65: More unchristian ghostly revenge takes place.
A sheriff was driven insane when he tried to arrest a woman who had taken refuge within the shrine.
A warrior was also driven mad for the “crime” of wearing a sword inside the sacred shrine.
Then the second abbot, Leofstan, was foolish enough – and disrespectful enough – to lift the coffin lid to see if the body was still, indeed, miraculously preserved. Worse, he had the cheek to lay his hand upon the saint’s head to see if it was truly still attached to the body. St Edmund – dead or not – was having none of that. The flesh instantly withered from Leofstan’s hands and Leofstan was left in crippling agony – so much so that King Edmund the Confessor sent his own physician (Baldwin) to try to assist him.
1042-66: King Edmund the Confessor visited the abbey and granted the abbot jurisdiction over most of West Suffolk. He also granted it a charter to have its own mint.
10th-11th century: due to the many miracles attributed to St Edmund (he wasn’t always a vengeful, unholy ghost), the town changed its name from Beodericsworth to St Edmund’s Bury. Note that “bury” is from the Germanic/Norse word for a fortress – and does NOT refer to the “burial” of St Edmund!
No-one knows where St Edmund now lies. See Prince Louis and St Edmund below. Note that is possible that the saint’s bones were accidentally cremated in a fierce fire in 1465. Certainly, when Henry VIII’s officers arrived to plunder the abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the saint’s bones were no longer in the shrine.
The town’s motto is “Shrine of king; Cradle of the law“. The king concerned is King Edmund.
Norman Nuggets – The Death of a Prince
During Norman times, King William the Conqueror increased the number of monks from 20 to 80.
11th century: Abbot Baldwin (the physician that Edward the Confessor had sent to heal Leofstan’s withered hands) liked Bury so much that he stayed and became Abbot. He was of French origins and was trusted to be a physician to King William the Conqueror. Perhaps because he was a fellow Norman, the Normans did not build a castle to enforce domination at Bury and Baldwin was left to rule in peace.
1070-72: Bishop Herfast of Elmham tried to establish the See of East Anglia at Bury (with himself in charge). This did not suit Abbot Baldwin at all. Instead of considering it an honour for the town, he was concerned that this would bring him under the rule of Bishop Elmham (a loss of his own personal authority!) and he appealed to Pope Alexander II. His appeal was successful, the Pope took the monks of Bury under the personal protection of the Holy see and the see was moved from Thetford to Norwich.
1093: Alan Rufus, a companion of William the Conqueror who is thought by some to have commanded the Bretons at the Battle of Hastings, was buried outside the south door of the abbey. He was later reburied inside the abbey after a petition by his family and the abbey monks.
1132: Henry I visited the abbey.
In 1153, Eustace de Blois – the only legitimate son of King Stephen – died at Bury St Edmunds after a confrontation with the abbey monks. 17 year-old Eustace was furious that the Truce of Wallingford had effectively stripped him of the right to rule after his father’s death and so refused the monks’ hospitality and plundered the abbey’s possessions. One story says that, as soon as he sat down to eat, he choked to death on his food (divine retribution?) whilst another has him dying of natural causes. Eustace’s death at Bury caused his rival for the throne – the future Henry II – to like the abbey!
Angevin Times – the Battle of Fornham St Genevieve, the Taming of King John (the Famous Magna Carta!) and the – Alleged – Theft of St Edmund’s Remains
1157: St Edmund’s ghost makes his presence felt again! Henry of Essex, an abbey knight who was less than generous to the abbey, annoyed the saint enough for his armoured body to appear, floating in mid-air, scowling and making threatening gestures whilst he was struggling to win a duel. Not surprisingly, Henry lost the duel and suffered severe injuries.
1173-1202: Jocelyn of Brakelond, one of the Benedictine monks at Bury, wrote a chronicle detailing life at the abbey.
1173: the army of King Henry II met the army of Earl Bigod (from Framlingham), the Earl of Leicester and Flemish mercenaries at the Battle of Fornham St Genevieve on the banks of the Lark on the 17th or 27th October. The Bigod/Leiceester alliance were en-route to relieve a siege of Leicester Castle having just (viciously) won a battle at Haughley Castle. They were intercepted at Fornham St Genevieve by royal troops under command of the Constable of England, Humphrey de Bohun. The abbey rallied to the king and the royal troops attacked raising the banner of St Edmund. Local peasants also joined in on the side of king and country – after all, Bigod’s mercenaries had caused local hatred by looting and pillaging their way through the county. No peasant likes his crops stolen, his livestock butchered and then stolen, his home plundered and his lands trampled upon; Suffolk peasants were no exception. It was a massacre and the royal forces (viciously) were victorious. Earl Hugh Bigod fled to Bungay Castle but the Earl and Countess of Leicester were captured, their Norman followers were taken prisoner. Many of the Flemish mercenaries were drowned trying to escape across the Lark or else impaled by local peasants upon a pitch fork or flail. It is said that 10,000 of the rebel forces were killed in this battle and that the blood stained the fields for miles around. Mounds still exist today where the slaughtered were buried.
1174 and 1181: King Henry II visited the abbey.
1181: St Robert of Bury was a young choirboy from the abbey who was found murdered (crucified), it is said on Good Friday. His death was blamed on the town’s Jewish community – maybe because the Jewish community were money lenders (and therefore unpopular). Rumours began to circulate that the Jews had gained their wealth through sacrificial murders. Robert was buried in the Abbey church and Jocelyn of Brakelond states that miracles were attributed to him. He became the focus of much anti-Jewish feeling.
1182: Abbot Samson walked all the way to Rome with only his staff for protection. He was protesting against King Henry II’s misappropriation of the tithes from Woolpit church (these tithes had been used to pay for the Abbey infirmary). He won his cause, got a papal letter and the king was forced to return the money!
1188: King Henry II visited Bury on November 20th to pray for the success of his own upcoming Crusade.
20 November 1189: King Richard I visits Bury to celebrate St Edmund’s death prior to his own crusade and Abbot Samson of Tottington gave him 1000 marks for the crusade (a large sum in those days). When Richard I was captured and imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria at Durnstein in 1192, Prince John tried to stir up trouble. Abbot Samson and all of the Bury monks excommunicated the trouble makers and then Abbot Samson raised money for his ransom in 1193 and is said to have travelled to Germany (Richard I was then being held by Emperor Henry VI) to take gifts to the imprisoned king. Whilst some say that Bury contributed to the ransom, all historians agree that Samson refused to allow the shrine of St Edmund to be despoiled – indeed, Jocelin of Brackland records that when the Barons of the Exchequer tried to force Abbot Samson to comply and give them the priceless gold and jewels on St Edmund’s shrine, he opened the church doors and told them to take what they dared. They were so frightened of the powers of St Edmund’s avenging ghost that they refused!
1190: at a time of rising anti-Semitism, Bury St Edmunds became the first town in England to expel a Jew. This is thought to have been triggered, in part, by the death of St Robert of Bury in 1181. Nine years later, on Palm Sunday 1190, 57 Jews were killed in a very-unchristian massacre. Abbot Samson – who just so happened to be in debt to Jewish money-lenders – petitioned the King Richard I for permission to expel the Jews on the grounds that everything that was in St Edmund’s town belonged to the saint and therefore the Jews should be St Edmund’s men or should be banished. The remaining Jews were marched out of town – a low point in our town’s history.
1194: One of Richard I’s first acts upon returning to England from captivity was to pay a visit of thanksgiving to the abbey.
1198: St Edmund’s avenging ghost was learning some tolerance. After a fire damaged the shrine, Abbot Samson opened the coffin and found his remains to be still miraculously intact and without decay. Equally miraculously, Abbot Samson was not punished – maybe because he showed more respect than his predecessor Leofstan? This is the last recorded opening of the coffin.
1199: Soon after his coronation, King John – who had not appreciated Abbot Samson’s support for Richard I – visited the abbey but, in place of the customary gifts (visiting monarchs often donated a manor house or two to offset the considerable cost of feeding, entertaining and housing a royal’s retinue of courtiers and friends), he presented Abbot Samson with 1 shilling and a silk scarf taken from the Sacrist!
1203: King John again visited the abbey and again caused massive resentment when he reclaimed the jewels that his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had given.
1214: King John visited the abbey in November. The town is known as “cradle of the law” because the Archbishop of Canterbury (Stephen Langton) and 25 barons met here in secret under cover of attending the Feast of St Edmund on 20th November 1214. At the time, the town was in the middle of fenland to the north and forests and marshes to the south and so was ideal for sheltering them from the prying eyes of the king’s agents. King John himself was away fighting in France (a common hobby at the time) and there was no abbot at the abbey to keep order. The barons met in the abbey’s great hall, then took mass in the church and then, one by one, beginning with the highest rank, they swore on the great altar that they would make the hugely unpopular King John agree to the proclamations of King Henry I at his coronation over 100 years before. (Whilst Henry I conveniently shelved this charter once he was on the throne and never implemented it, a royal charter gave their rebellion a veneer of legality and respectability.) They swore that, if the king failed to do so, then they would withdraw allegiance and make war on him. This led to King John – reluctantly – signing Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.
Note that when, in 1776, the USA fashioned its constitution, it based it upon the principles of Magna Carta.
Note: the town’s motto is “shrine of a king; cradle of the law“. Bury is called cradle of the law because of its Magna Carta connections.
1215-16: Civil war broke out between King John and the barons when King John tried to revoke Magna Carta, claiming (perhaps understandably) that it had been signed under duress. In 1216, Prince Louis of France invaded at the request of the barons and allegedly – marched from Orford to Bury and took the saint’s remains from the abbey and took them to Toulouse, France. (The abbey records do not record this event.)
Note that, in the early 20th century, these bones were returned to England, analysed, and it was discovered that they belonged to several different people. They were not, therefore, buried at Westminster Cathedral as planned.
Plantagenets – Kings Visit and People Riot
1267: King Henry III came to the town on February 6th to put down rebellions in the Fens after fugitives known as “the Disinherited” seized Ely and also attacked King’s Lynn. Papal legate, Ottobuono, arrived on the 7th and threatened to excommunicate the Disinherited. This sparked further arrest and King Henry III marched with his army to Cambridge and then on to Ely.
1272: King Henry III arrived back in Bury on 1st September whilst en-route to punish a large uprising at Norwich. He held a parliament at the abbey before leaving on the 15th.
1275: King Edward I and his wife, Eleanor of Castille, came to Bury on a pilgrimage after a vow made whilst on Crusade; in 1285 they returned with three daughters after a vow he had made whilst campaigning in Wales. (Owing to St Edmund’s reputation as a worker of miracles, kings often prayed to him to invoke his protection before battle.) King Edward returned again in 1289, 1292, 1294, 1296 (when he held a parliament there), 1298, 1299, 1300 and 1301. In total, this devout king visited the abbey 15 times.
1326: King Edward II spent Christmas at Bury St Edmunds abbey.
January 1327: an angry mob of 3000 attacked the abbey during the Great Riot. As well as being at the time of Edward II’s abdication crisis, this was at a time when other monastic towns were winning some degree of independence from the abbeys, whilst the monks at Bury were retaining control of rights (for example, the right to elect Aldermen and to appoint the gatekeepers) and money (for example, the tronage or duty charged on wool). It was also a time when the morality of the monks had declined to such an extent that prostitutes paraded the cloisters and mass was skipped and the townsfolk had lost all respect for the monks.
For some years, discontent had been rumbling on with minor skirmishes. For example, in 1315, the townspeople fought the Abbot’s bailiffs, caught and flogged a few monks and threw stones at workmen repairing the roof. They were somewhat annoyed to be fined £200 by King Edward II! More fuel to their grievances with the abbey.
Then, in January 1327, some London trouble-makers met a few leading men from the town; the next day, the Toll House bell summoned everyone to the Great Market and it is said that some 3000 people forced the abbey gates, beating up everyone they found. They ransacked the archives (which contained the abbey’s charters and registers – the foundations of its power), stole the abbey’s treasures and sent the Prior and 13 monks off to jail. A charismatic tailor, John Berton, established himself as leader and on 28th January, he demanded that Abbot Richard (who had just returned from London) sign a Charter of Liberties which effectively gave up all of the abbey’s power over the town. To help the poor abbot make up his mind, they placed a headsman’s chopping block and nice, sharp axe in his view. The abbot promised to try to get the new king to sign this but, on gaining the security of London, he backtracked and claimed (with some justification) that he had only signed under coercion. Somewhat annoyed, John Berton got the local serfs on-board with the rebellion by promising them freedom – the serfs promptly joined in the looting.
By October, the monks were tired of waiting for outside help that did not come (the king merely issued a royal mandate banning armed assemblies) and so they made an armed raid into St James’ church trying to arrest any they could find – unfortunately for them, the bells on the Norman Gate and the Toll House alerted an angry mob and a massacre occurred, many buildings were set alight and the abbey gates were set atop a bonfire. Finally, a sheriff arrived with troops. Leaders were hung (or outlawed if they had scarpered) and 30 cartloads of lesser rioters were sent to Norwich jail.
Outlawing the leaders and not hunting them down proved to be a mistake. When Abbot Richard eventually ventured back from London, he was kidnapped and smuggled to Babrant in Belgium.
The abbey claimed for malicious damage against the townsfolk and a jury awarded it £14,000 (about £8 million in today’s money). A decade later, the disgruntled townsfolk had still not repaid this money and so Edward III proposed that the townsfolk repay £67 per year over 20 years and that the abbey would write off the £12,000 balance; to sweeten the deal, he gave the abbey the rights to numerous East Anglian rabbit warrens. (Abbot Richard – released by his captors once the demand for £14,000 was dropped – described this as the “most expensive supply of rabbit stew in history”!)
1338: Thomas of Brotherton, son of King Edward I, 1st Earl of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England, was buried in the abbey choir after dying at Framlingham. The abbey would most likely have benefited financially from this royal burial – useful income after the riots of the previous decade.
1381: During The Peasants’ Revolt, the Angels of Satan under the leadership of John Wrawe, a former Essex chaplain, reached the Southgate from Sudbury on June 13th armed with the slogan “Brounfield for Abbot and Freedom for Bury”. (Edmund Brounfield had been nominated by Pope Urban VI as Abbot and many of the townsfolk had been bribed and flattered into supporting him but their wishes were ignored by the monks and John Tymworth had been elected as a – less than popular – abbot.) The townsfolk let them in to do their dirty work for them and the Angels of Satan ransacked many houses, including that of Sir John Cavendish (the Chief Justice and the Chancellor of Cambridge University) and John de Cambridge (the unpopular Prior who had been left to run the abbey whilst Tymworth was away and the people’s choice of abbot, Edmund Brounfield, languished in prison).
Sir John Cavendish and John de Cambridge initially tried to take sanctuary in the abbey. A mistake. The monks – frightened of yet more mob attacks – handed their guests over or forced them out. Their treachery didn’t protect them, however – old resentments resurfaced, and the abbey got looted yet again.
Somehow, the two men escaped. (For a while.) The Friar fled to the house of a servant at Mildenhall monastery but, when he tried to leave for Ely, he was betrayed by his guide and hunted like an animal through woods near Newmarket; after a farce of a trial, he was beheaded and his head was planted on a tall pole in the Great Market. When Sir John Cavendish was captured trying to get to the ferry at Brandon, he was also beheaded and his head was arranged on a second pole. As the two men had been friends, the mob amused themselves by arranging the heads so that they seemed to be whispering (at times) or kissing (at other times). Another monk (John de Lakenheath who had been tasked with collecting the poll tax and was therefore hugely unpopular) was also beheaded (with eight blows!) John Wrawe tried to use Bury as his base for spreading unrest – for example, he threatened to burn Sudbury unless the mayor found large sums of gold.
By June 23rd, however, The Peasants’ Revolt was over in Bury – 5000 troops charged into the town and John Wrawe and his Angels fled. When Parliament declared a national amnesty, Bury St Edmunds was the only town in England to be specifically excluded and its people were fined £1300 for their “outrageous and horrible misdeeds, long continued”.
1383: King Richard II and his wife Anne of Bohemia visited the abbey for 10 days en-route to a pilgrimage at Walsingham in Norfolk. King Richard adopted St Edmund as one of his personal patron saints.
Lancastrians and Yorkists: the Murder of the Heir to the Throne
1426: Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Exeter, illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, died at Greenwich but was buried in the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey of Bury St Edmunds. he was interred next to his wife.
1433-4: the 12 year old King Henry VI came to Bury with his uncle Duke Humphrey on Christmas Eve; they spent four months in the town and left on St George’s Day. He returned in 1436 and then held a parliament at Bury in 1446.
1447, the heir to the throne, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, died in suspicious circumstances at St Saviour’s Hospital. He was the uncle of King Henry VI and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Henry VI had summoned parliament to attend him at the Great Refectory Hall in the abbey and Duke Humphrey arrived without protection. He was charged with treason, put under house arrest at St Saviour’s Hospital and 12 days later, on the 24th February, he was dead. His doctor claimed that he died of a stroke due to the stress of being charged with treason and his body was put on public display to try to squash rumours of murder, but suspicion remained. Rumours ran rife.
One person who was suspected was the Duke of Gloucester’s enemy: William, Duke of Suffolk. Suffolk was later banished from the country. In “Henry VI, Part II”, Shakespeare portrays this as murder instigated by the Duke of Suffolk.
Another suspect was a young nun called Maude Carew. Maude was a nun at Fornham Priory. Showing a complete disregard for her nun’s vows, she was said to be obsessed with her lover, Father Bernard, a monk at the abbey. Father Bernard was to be called as a prosecution witness against the Duke of Gloucester and Maude was said to be worried for the safety of her lover should Gloucester (as seemed likely) win his trial. She was apparently approached by Queen Margaret of Anjou (wife of King Henry VI) to do the deadly deed. The story goes that she used an underground tunnel to enter the room of the “Good Duke Humphrey” and dropped poison onto his lips as he slept before using the remaining poison to commit suicide in the arms of her lover. Showing no gratitude whatsoever, and a very un-monkly attitude, Father Bernard cursed her to wander as a spirit forever more. She is now said to be the Grey Lady who reputedly haunts the abbey and parts of Bury; perhaps due to some degree of conscience, Father Bernard is said to be the Brown Monk who also haunts parts of the town. The 24th February, the anniversary of the death/murder of the “Good Duke Humphrey”, is said to be a favourite time to see these unhappy spirits.
1448, Henry VI again holds parliament at Bury.
1448 and 1449: Henry VI visits Our Lady of Woolpit – a statue of the Virgin Mary at Woolpit church that was once an object of pilgrimage in the 15th and 16th centuries.
1469: King Edward IV visited the abbey.
Tudor Times – a Royal Divorce, a King’s Sister and Lady Jane Grey
1486: King Henry VII visited the abbey shortly after his victory at Bosworth Field.
1528: When King Henry VIII tasked Cardinal Wolsey of Ipswich to secure his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Stephen Gardiner of Bury St Edmunds was the private secretary whom Cardinal Wolsey sent to Rome to secure an annulment from Pope Clement VII. As the Pope was currently the prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Gardiner was fighting a losing battle! Unlike Wolsey, however, who was later charged with High Treason for failing to secure an annulment, Gardiner was made Bishop of Winchester and then secretary to the king and escaped the fatal wrath of King Henry.
16th century: Lady Jane Gray‘s grandmother was Mary Tudor – the sister of Henry VIII and widow of King Louis XII of France. Mary Tudor was re-buried in St Mary’s church six years after her death (she was originally buried at the abbey in 1533 but her body was moved after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.) She married Charles Brandon (a commoner from nearby Brandon) in secret when Henry VIII sent him to escort her back to England after the death of King Louis; Henry VIII was initially furious as he had planned to make another politically-enriching marriage for her but relented when the sent him jewels and pleading letters. Henry VIII created them Duke and Duchess of Suffolk and they lived at Westhorpe Hall. Mary Tudor died at Westhorpe on 25 June 1533.
1555-85: Religious martyrs are tried and/or executed at Bury.
1555: Rowland Taylor, the rector of Hadleigh who was burnt at the stake by Bloody Mary after supporting Lady Jane Grey and refusing to renounce his wife and children, was Archdeacon of Bury St Edmunds and had preached his views here.
1553-8: at least 19 Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake at Thingoe Hill outside Bury during the (thankfully) brief reign of Bloody Mary. Martyrs included a wheelwright, two weavers, a labourer, a husbandsman and, of course, churchmen.
1585: Elizabeth 1 was no more tolerant of independent religious thought than Bloody Mary had been. On the 4th and 5th of June 1585, Elias Thacker and John Copping were hanged for preaching against the official Protestant teachings – including denying the supremacy of Elizabeth I in ecclesiastical matters. A memorial to these two Elizabethan martyrs is in Whiting Street.
1578: Elizabeth I visited Thomas Kytson the younger at Hengrave Hall en-route to Norwich; she knighted him for his hospitality.
The Stuarts – Gunpowder, Treason and Witch Trials
1605: one of the chief financers of the failed Gunpowder Plot was Ambrose Rookwood from Stanningfield. As well as financing the gunpowder and weapons, his stable of fast horses (he was a horse-breeder) was considered essential for the uprising that the plotters planned to follow the total destruction of the State Opening of Parliament on the 5th November. Unfortunately for Rookwood, the plot was discovered and – even though he initially escaped using a relay of his best horses – he was eventually captured. Not surprisingly given the charge of high treason, his pleas for mercy were ignored and he was hung, drawn and quartered on 31st January 1606 at the Old Palace Yard, Westminster. On the scaffold, he prayed that God would turn King James I into a good Catholic.
1599-1694: The Bury St Edmunds Witch Trials were yet another dark stain on our town’s history. As Bury was then the largest town in Suffolk, and the seat of the county court, important trials from throughout the county were heard in the town.
1645: on 27th August, 18 “witches” were hanged on a single day at Bury because of “trials” overseen by the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. Victims included an 80 year old vicar of Brandeston.
1662: One famous case that was to have far-reaching repercussions was the trial, at the Court of County Assizes in Bury, of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender from Lowestoft. These two unfortunate elderly widows were accused of causing a toad to fall out of a child’s blanket and then vanish with a hiss in the fire. Once suspicion of witchraft began, they were then accused of making Samuel Pacey’s children vomit pins and nails after he refused to sell them herrings; they were also “credited” with infesting another man with lice, causing a cart to collapse and a chimney to fall down, not to mention causing the deaths of local pigs, cattle and horses. Basically, whatever misfortunes the good people of Lowestoft suffered, these two helpless ladies were said to be to blame. They were found guilty and hanged at Thingoe Hill on 17th March 1662.
What caused the trial to be so significant was that it was presided over by Sir Mathew Hale, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and an eminent and respected judge. Sir Thomas Browne, an equally eminent physician, also gave evidence of a similar trial in Denmark. Together, the two men gave the hysteria-based, pig-ignorant trial a sense of learned, impartial respectability. This had terrible consequences 30 years later in Salem, Massachusetts, where the proceedings became a model for the Salem Witch Trials where 122 people were imprisoned for witchcraft and 20 were executed.
1611: King James I created the hereditary Order of Baronets in England on 22nd May. 16 men were initially honoured; one of these men was Sir Nicholas Bacon of Culford Hall. he became Baronet Bacon of Redgrave.
1647: Just to prove that the good people of Bury were up for a riot even after the abbey’s powers had long since been lost with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1647 the town saw the Maypole Riots. Masterminded by Colonel Blague, a staunch Royalist from Horringer, the townspeople rebelled against the Puritan’s forbidding them to dance around the maypole. Maybe because they valued their ancient tradition, maybe because they were Royalists, the townsfolk erected their maypole and prepared to dance in defiance of the Puritans. A riot erupted when orders were given (by the town elders) to take down the maypole and Cromwell’s Roundhead Model Army had to be called in.
1658-85: During the second English Civil War, the exiled Charles II sent William Crofts of Little Saxham to Lithuania and Poland to raise money for the Royalists. He rewarded him by making him Baron Crofts of Saxham in 1658. He was also made guardian of Charles’ eldest, but illegitimate, son – James. James took the surname of his guardian and became James Crofts. He was then created Duke of Monmouth when he was 14 and, handsome and charming, was and spoilt and showered with other honours. When Charles II died in 1685 with no legitimate heir, the throne went to Charles’s brother, another James – King James II .When Protestant Parliamentarians rallied to his support, James Duke of Monmouth declared himself the true king with a “legitimate and legal” right to the crown; after a few battles, he was captured and beheaded for treason in 1685 for attempting to depose his uncle King James II.
Note that James Duke of Monmouth was the son of Charles II’s romance with Lucy Walter when he was exiled on the Continent after the arrest and execution of Charles I; Lucy claimed they were married in secret, her detractors claimed there had been no marriage and that James Duke of Monmouth was therefore illegitimate. James II obviously played upon supposed the illegitimacy of his nephew!
1668: Charles II visited Lord Cornwallis at Culford Hall. According to the diarist Samuel Pepys, a scandal ensued when the amorous monarch persuaded Lord Cornwallis to procure the parson’s daughter for his pleasure. She flung herself out of an upstairs window and died – whether as suicide or a desperate escape bid, it is not known.
The Hanoverians – a Forgotten Anti-Slavery Campaigner and the Infamous Murder in the Red Barn
Sir James Reynolds, Junior, who was MP for Bury St Edmunds and was buried at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on his death in 1739, was one of 12 barristers called to determine whether King George I should have sole decision-making power over the educational and other aspects of his grandchildren’s upbringing or whether his son (the future George II) should be allowed parental control. Sir Reynolds argued in favour of the father (the future King George II) but was defeated by a vote of 10-2.
1781-1802: Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquis Cornwallis, was a major political and military figure. After marrying Jemima Tullekin Jones, the couple settled at Culford Hall and their children were born there.
1781: Cornwallis commanded the British force in Yorktown, Virginia, during the American War of Independence. Outnumbered by almost two to one, he surrendered his 8000 soldiers and seamen to the 14,000 American and French soldiers under the command of George Washington on 19th October 1781. (In actual fact, he pleaded illness and left his deputy to surrender his sword whilst the British band played “And the World Turned Upside Down”, but the effect was the same.) There were some skirmishes after this, especially at sea, but this defeat effectively marked the end of the war in America and peace negotiations began the following year.
1798-1801: He served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland. As the holder of both the highest civilian and the highest military post in Ireland, he dealt with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and was instrumental in securing the 1800 Act of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland.
1802: Charles Cornwallis and Joseph Bonaparte signed the Treaty of Amiens on 25th March 1802. This was a peace treaty between Britain and France and Cornwallis signed on behalf of Britain. peace lasted for just one year.
18th and 19th centuries: Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading figure in the abolition of the slave trade, married Catherine Buck from Bury at St Mary’s Church on 21st January 1796. Catherine was the daughter of yarn maker William Buck who founded the Green King Brewery. The Clarkson’s lived in St Mary’s Square, Bury, from 1805 (some sources say 1806) until their move to Playford, Ipswich, in 1816. It was Clarkson and another man (Granville Sharp) who formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787; whilst they recruited William Wilberforce as their spokesperson, it was Clarkson who collected the evidence that led to the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
1827: In May 1827, Maria Martin, the daughter of a Polstead mole-catcher disappeared and was later found buried in the Red Barn at Polstead. Maria’s lover, William Corder, was found guilty of her murder and thrown into Bury gaol before being executed in the town on 11th August 1832. The Murder in the Red Barn became infamous in its day and his hanging drew an estimated 70,000 spectators from all over the country. After the hanging, his body was placed on public view in Shire Hall. Then it was cut open for the titillation of the spectators and an account of the murder was bound in leather made from his own skin. His death mask can still be seen at Moyses Hall Museum.
1836: The town benefitted from a charter signed by King William IV giving the borough the right to hold Quarter Sessions of the Peace.
More Recent Times
1974: Ipswich, rather than Bury, became the county town of Suffolk
This resource is indebted to numerous local history books read over the years and numerous online resources used to double-check each fact. Useful resources are:
Local History Books
“Bloody British History: Bury St Edmunds” by Robert Leader, 2011
“The Book of Magna Carta”, by Geoffrey Hindley, 18 Jun 1990
“Borough of St. Edmundsbury”, 1 Jan 1976
“Bury St Edmunds Abbey”, by A B Whittingham, English Heritage Guidebooks, 1995
“Bury St Edmunds, King John and The Magna Carta Crisis” by Ken Burrows
“Bury St Edmunds – Official Guide”, 1 Jan 1970
“From Domesday Book to Magna Carta 1087-1216” by A. L. Poole, Oxford History of England, 26 Mar 1963
“Jocelin of Brakelond: The Life of a Monk and Chronicler of the Great Abbey of St. Edmund”, by Norman Scarfe, 1997
“Memorials of St Edmund’s Abbey: Volume 1” by Thomas Arnold, Cambridge Library Collection – Rolls, 15 Nov 2012
“The Sacred and Profane History of Bury St Edmunds” by Peter Bishop, 1998
St Edmundsbury Chronicle gives a very detailed account of the town’s history
General Reference Books
“Peasants’ Revolt: The Uprising in Kent, Essex, East Anglia and London During the Reign of King Richard II” by Ronald Webber, Sep 1980
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