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The Canon of John Lydgate Project

The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

William Curteys, the Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds
The character and works of William Curteys, according to Thomas Arnold, from the Introduction to vol. 3 of his Memorials of St. Edmund's Abbey, pp. xxix-xxxiii.

William Curteys, 1429-1446. Of this excellent man a life might be written, throwing much light on the history of the period, on the power and wealth of the great monasteries, and their influence both in home and foreign affairs, before the breaking out of the civil wars.

A great misfortune befell the abbey in January 1430. The southern part of the great bell-tower built by sacrist Lavenham, weakened by too constant ringing of the bells, fell with a sudden crash. The east side of the same tower fell in January 1431. The west front was still in a ruinous and unsafe condition when the young king was brought to Bury in 1433. But Abbot Curteys, obtaining from the Holy See an indulgence for all those who should contribute to the restoration, rebuilt the tower at a cost said to amount to 60,000 ducats.

Henry VI., after his futile coronation at Paris in 1431, had been brought back to England, and was royally received in London. Bury had a poet at this time,--the famous John Lydgate; who, three years before, when Henry was crowned at Westminster (November 6th 1429), had presented to him a ballad beginning "Most noble prince of Crysten princes all." When the king passed through London in 1433, Lydgate wrote a ballad entitled "The royal receiving of Henry the 6 into his noble citie of London after his returne out of France." Probably other means of recommending himself and his community to the king and council were also used by the poet; as the result of which the council determined, on All Saints' day 1433, that Henry and the court should spend the Christmas at Bury, and continue their stay till tbe feast of St. George (April 23) in the following year. Of this visit Curteys has left an account in his register; Lydgate also, in his life of St. Edmund, thus speaks of it:--

        Whan sixte Henry in his estat roial
        With his sceptre of Yngland and of France
        Heeld at Bury the feste pryncipal
        Of Cristemesse with ful gret habundance,
        And aftir that list to have plesance--
        As his consail gan for him provide--
        There in his place til hesterne for to abide;

        Whiche is an house of his fundacioun,
        Where his preestis synge ay for him and preie,
        Of ful hool herte and trewe affeccioun,
        That God his noblesse in al vertu conveie,
        And grante him wynne toforn or that he deie
        A palme of conquest, and, whan that he shal fyne,
        To be registrid among the worthy nyne.
The abbot was at Elmeswell (Vol. I., p. 275) when the message from the council reached him. Returning to the convent, he immediately set 80 masons and artificers to work, to enlarge and adorn the abbot's palace. Then he consulted the alderman, and it was agreed between them that in the procession which went forth to meet the king, the alderman and burgesses should be robed in scarlet, and inferior persons in red. So it was done; the townsmen, headed by their alderman, turned out five hundred strong; the monks were in costly "cappas." Owing to the ruined state of the campanile, and the danger of falling stones, the procession met the king on the south, not on the west side of the great church; the king was lifted, or helped, off his palfrey, by his governor the earl of Warwick; the bishop of Norwich (William Alnwick) and the abbot, with due welcome, gave him holy water, and the procession marched up to the high altar, singing the anthem from St. Edmund's office "Ave rex gentis Anglorum." To this auspicious beginning all the rest of the visit seems to have corresponded. The abbot made liberal presents both to the king and the nobles, in aid of which the prior and convent made him a noble grant of one hundred pounds. The king lodged at first in the abbot's palace, but after the Epiphany moved to the prior's residence near the east end of the church, so as to be nearer to the vineyard across the Lark, and the open country beyond. The courtiers hunted the fox and the hare in the fields and woods to the eastward. On the 23rd January the royal Party went to Elmeswell, where they had great enjoyment of fishing and hawking. Lent was passed at the prior's lodging, and then Easter was celebrated with great solemnity and splendour. When the set time came for departure, the Duke of Gloucester and all the courtiers were admitted to the spiritual privileges of the monks--made, so to speak, honorary members of the house. The king prayed before St. Edmund's shrine; then he passed into the chapter-house, where the abbot solemnly admitted him also into the holy brotherhood of the community, and gave him the fraternal kiss--
        Which [the king] at departyng in Bury from his place,
        Lyst of his noblesse and magnanymite
        And of his owyn special grace,
        Mevyd in hym-silf of his benignyte,
        And ther chapitle a brother forto be,
        Yeving his chapleyns occasion and matier
        Ay to remembre on him in ther praier.
Finally, at the suggestion of his uncle the duke of Gloucester, the king took a grateful and affectionate leave of the monks, and rode off on his way. The abbot requested Lydgate, the poet of the house, to make a metrical Life of the royal martyr, their founder, for presentation to the king:--
             --to the king forto do plesaunce,
    Thabbot William, his humble chapeleyn,
    Gaf me in charge to do myn attendaunce 
    The noble story to translate in substaunce, 
    Out of the latin aftir my kunnyng,
    He in ful purpose to yeve it to the king.
The "Letters," printed at p. 241 seq., are all taken from the Curteys Register. The king seems to have consulted the abbot frequently and freely, as a young man consults an old and experienced friend, whom he knows he can trust. He often borrows money from him; asks his help in order that all fitting preparations may be made to receive the French princess whom he is about to marry; confides to him his anxiety about the progress of the French arms; begs him, as he, Henry, cannot be Present, to go to Cambridge for the laying of the first stone of King's College Chapel. That he held the abbot in the highest respect is certain; see the expressions on p. 264~.

Abbot Curteys died in 1446, and was succeeded by William Babington (1446-1453), of whom personally next to nothing is known. The practice of keeping a register seems to have been dropped by all the later abbots; hence the great obscurity which wraps the last eighty or ninety years of the monastery's existence.

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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Last revised: 9 Nov. 1995

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