[Picture of

The Canon of John Lydgate Project

The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

The Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds
[Picture of
the Main Gate to Abbey Precincts] The Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds (National Grid reference: TL8564) was founded in the year 633 in what was then a Saxon homestead known as Beodericsworth; the monastery from the start had royal patronage, being founded by Sigebert, the first Christian King of East Anglia, who abandoned his crown and retired there to live as a monk. His people forced him out of retirement to lead the army against an invasion from Mercia under the pagan King Penda, and Sigebert died in battle. Some two centuries later another king of East Anglia was killed trying to repel incursions by the Vikings, King Edmund; sometime in the early tenth century, prior to 945 (the date of a royal charter for the keepers of St. Edmund's shrine at Beodericsworth), Edmund's body was "translated" from its original burial place to the monastery at Beodericsworth. The town at that point changed its name to St. Edmunds Bury (which is the early form of the modern name "Bury St. Edmunds," this early form known from coins minted there in the reign of Edward the Confessor), and the monastery grew in importance both as the recipient of royal favours and grants and as an important destination for Christian pilgrims. The community of four secular priests and two deacons who had been the keepers of the relics of St. Edmund were replaced in 1020 (by Bishop Aelfwine of Elmham, with the authority of King Cnut) by 20 Benedictine monks from Horning and Ely; Uvius was consecrated as the first abbot, and King Cnut granted a liberal charter, large grants of land, and the money to begin building a new church of stone. The church was consecrated in 1032, at which time the new Benedictine monastery achieved the status of "abbey." From 20 monks in 1020, the monastery grew to accommodate about 80 monks (and 110 servants) by 1260.

The Abbey owned many manors and other properties in Suffolk and beyond, several of which have Lydgate associations. In particular, the abbey had close relations with the wool-town of Long Melford, where the abbot had a country house and deer park, and in the church the ceiling and walls of the Clopton Chantry were decorated by monks of Bury with lines from two Lydgate poems. The abbot also had a town house in London, called Buries Markes, where Lydgate almost certainly stayed when he had to be in London in attendance on the court.

Relations between the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds and the town which grew up around it, and was entirely dependent upon it, were sometimes good, sometimes strained. As the population grew, the abbey itself planned and laid out a townsite under Abbot Baldwin in the late eleventh century. The new town was walled, with five gates, each gate supplied with a chapel and a hostel for pilgrims. (This wall and the town gates were demolished in the eighteenth century.) The various periods of conflict between town and abbey may be illustrated by reference to the "war" of 1327, when the burgesses sought "independence" from the abbey, and townsfolk and monks met in armed combat: the abbey itself came under attack and some buildings were sacked and burned; indeed, the abbot himself was kidnapped and held for ransom in the form of a charter of privileges for the town; a charter quickly granted and, once the abbot was safe, as quickly rescinded. A true peace accord was finally reached in 1331, and all lawsuits on both sides were dropped; the Great Gate, which still stands as the main entrance to the abbey precincts, was built partly out of the proceeds of fines exacted upon the townsfolk after peace was re-established. In the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the abbey was again plundered and the prior murdered.

In 1465, the abbey was gutted by fire (a contemporary description of the fire is included in Arnold's Memorials 3: 283), and a major program of repair and rebuilding was finally completed in 1538. Within a year of completion, however, the abbey was dissolved. The last abbot was John Reeve, who, on 4 Nov. 1539, surrendered the abbey to the agents of Henry VIII. The surrender document was signed by the abbot, the prior and forty-two monks.

Shortly before the Abbey was dissolved, in 1534, John Leland described it thus in his notes towards a book on English antiquities:

The sun doth not shine upon a town more beautifully situated . . . upon a monastery more famed for its endowments, size and splendour. One would think one were looking upon a whole town, so many gates are there, some of brass, so many towers, and a church unsurpassed by any other, adjoined by three more in the finest style, all situated within the precincts of the monastery. Through it winds a small stream, spanned by a bridge with twin arches. (English trans.--by Ann Keep?--in Schirmer, p. 10; Schirmer also gives the original Latin text in a footnote.)
The abbey was sold by the crown to a John Eyer, and then passed to Thomas Badby, and, with the exception of the abbot's palace, was stripped of valuables and then quarried for building materials. The abbot's palace survived as a private residence until 1720 (Whittingham 11; also the Victoria County History of Bury 66-67).

The abbey precincts and ruins--apart from two churches still in use--are now a park under control of English Heritage. [You may wish to view a plan of the abbey grounds: 36K.] Of the three parish churches which stood on the perimeter of the abbey, two remain: St. James, much expanded in modern times, has been since 1914 the Cathedral of Bury St. Edmunds; the Norman Tower, built in the twelfth century as a second gateway into the abbey precincts, acts as a belfry for the Cathedral although it is not physically attached. The Church of St. Mary's stands in the southwest corner of the abbey precincts; it has an impressive interior, including a number of interesting late medieval tombs. Of the massive abbey church, at one time comparable in size to Durham Cathedral (Schirmer 11), all that remains are some columns in the nave, transept, choir and apse, as well as part of the west front, stripped of its facing stone, and preserved as part of the front wall of a row of houses built after the dissolution.

Descriptions of the abbey buildings and their present ruined state can be found in the Introduction to vol. 1 of Arnold's Memorials, in the Victoria County History article on Bury, and in Whittingham.

Some views of the Abbey:

[Part of the
ruined church] Some of the remains of the Abbey church.

[Part of the
ruined refectory] Some of the remains of the Abbey refectory and dormitory.

[Part of the
ruined church] The Norman Tower ("Great Gate").

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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
All rights reserved.
Last revised: 23 Nov. 1995

email: Stephen.Reimer@UAlberta.Ca
URL: https://sites.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/lydgate.htm/