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Bury St Edmunds

Bury St Edmunds was one of the great East Anglian towns in the medieval era, based around the abbey of St Edmunds. Bury was the administrative centre for West Suffolk until 1974, and has remained the second town of Suffolk since the county was unified as an administrative area.

Beodriceworth was a settlement on this site in Saxon times, 'worth' meaning a homestead, so "Beotrix's homestead". Sigeberht, the Christian king of East Anglia in the period 630 AD - 640 AD is reported to have founded a monastery on the site. Sigeberht is thought to have been a step-son of the great East Anglia king Raedwald, whose remains and riches are probably those found at Sutton Hoo.

Edmund was king of the East Angles in the period 855 AD to 869 AD, when he was martyred by Viking invaders. The battle at which he was captured and then killed with arrows was probably near Thetford; about 25 years later his remains were taken to Beodriceworth. Miracles were associated with St Edmund, including the story that Sweyn Forkbeard was struck dead whilst threatening to attack what had then become known as St Edmund's Bury. His son, King Cnut (Canute), founded an order of Benedictine monks at Bury, and a new church building was begun in 1032.

Such was the popular devotion to St Edmund that the great abbey grew up, becoming the largest in Europe. Pilgrims travelled to Bury St Edmunds from far and wide. It was at meeting in the abbey that a group of barons committed themselves, in 1214 AD, to make King John accept the terms they had drawn up in Magna Carta. The town motto,"Shrine of a king, cradle of the law" is based upon the two links, with St Edmund and this meeting of the barons.

Abbot Baldwin was particularly influential in the late 11th century, as Bury grew in importance. He laid out new streets and encouraged craftsmen to come to the town. As with many towns of pilgrimage, the visitors brought money and businesses grew up to meet their various needs - with hospitals, hostels and the sale of religious ephemera. At the same time, Norfolk and Suffolk grew in their importance for the keeping of sheep for wool, and Bury was a major centre for wool processing through fulling and weaving.

The abbot controlled the town in medieval times, and resentment of the power of the church finally led to a riot in which a mob from the town broke through the abbey gates and sacked the abbey. This event in 1327 was followed by further violence in 1381 during the Peasants' Revolt, when the Prior was beheaded as he fled the monastery.

The reign of King Henry VIII brought the dissolution of the monasteries, Bury St Edmunds abbey being sold for 412 19s 4d. As in so many other similar places around England, the buildings were treated as an easy source of stone, and most of it can be found reused in other buildings in Bury.

The ending of the power of the Abbot lead to reform in the government of the town. In 1606 the town recevied a charter when it was incorporated. The town was in a period of relative decline, as the overall importance of the wool merchants of East Anglia declined.

Daniel Defoe, in his Tour through the Eastern Countie in 1722, writes several paragraphs about St Edmund's Bury. He is interested to hear that "that the the daughters of all the gentry of the three counties (i.e. Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgehsire) -- come hither to be picked up" is said of Bury - seemingly in the way the phrase is used today! More usefully to us in understanding the state of the town, he says,"Here is no manufacturing in this town, or but very little, except spinning, the chief trade of the place depending upon the gentry who live there, or near it, and who cannot fail to cause trade enough by the expense of their families and equipages among the people of a county town."

The early 19th century saw the building of both the splendid Theatre Royal, still in operation today, and the first modern hospital. The railway arrived in 1846, providing a connection with Ipswich, to be followed by connection to Cambridge in 1854. The status of the town as a regional centre continued to strengthen and the establishment of West Suffolk as an Administrative County in 1889 confirmed its status. Grain, malting and sugar processing were all established, building on the town's position as a centre for the rural economy.

The visitor to the town today can walk within the old abbey walls, see the Norman Tower, walk through the abbey gate - and see the recent restoration work, taking care of Bury's rich heritage.


The view across the gardens where the Saxon and Norman abbey once stood gives an idea of the scale, assisted by the size of the cathedral of St James's in the background. The cathedral as seen today was begun in the early 16th century.

The Norman Tower was completed in the middle of the 12th century as the main gateway to the Abbey. Its size imposed the power of the Abbey onto the people of the town and district.

The Abbey Gate which is used to enter the grounds today was begun after the riots of 1327. It was built primarily for defensive purposes, witnessed by the archer stations and portcullis grooves still seen today.

The Corn Exchange demonstrates the importance of Bury as a market town when it was built in 1861. The figures above the portico symbolise agriculture, commerce and engineering

Bury has a huge richness of buildings from all periods, and our selection has to be arbitrary. This photo is a detail from the fine Unitarian Meeting House in Churchgate Street, a building completed in 1712

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