Bury St. Edmunds

Leland, writing of Bury St. Edmunds, some three centuries ago, observed with unwonted enthusiasm, “the sun hath not shone on a town more delightfully situated;” and we may almost add, that the sun doth not now shine on a town, in the whole, more worthy of its natural beauty of position, or of the name which it is said to have borne in the Roman times—the Villa Faustina, or the “happy town.” This has partly arisen from the circumstance that a great portion of the place was burnt down in 1806, and has been rebuilt in a handsome manner; but still more must be owing to the feelings and taste of the inhabitants. The river, which, as may be seen in our engravings (Figs. 691, 692), gives so charming an appearance to Bury St. Edmunds from whatever direction viewed, is the Larke; and it contributes no less to the internal than the external aspect, to the comfort than the prosperity of the place. Here we see its waters washing the lower part of the very pretty botanical garden; there bearing along the numerous barges laden with coals and other commodities which they have received about a mile below the town, where the Larke ceases to be navigable to larger vessels. The entrance to that garden is through the “Abbey gate,” almost the only relic of a monastery which, in architectural extent and magnificence, wealth, privileges, and power, surpassed every other in Great Britain, Glastonbury alone excepted; and the early history of which almost ranks even with that foundation in interest.

In the ninth century the place belonged to Beodric, and was hence called his worthe or cortis, that is to say, his villa or mansion, and was by that nobleman bequeathed to Edmund, the King and Martyr. How the last-named title was obtained it is our business here briefly to relate, for in the martyrdom of King Edmund we look for the origin of much of the prosperity of Bury, and of the historical interest which now invests its monastic remains. Mingling, as usual, truth and fable, the story runs thus:—Edmund, the brother and predecessor of the great Alfred, succeeding to the throne of East Anglia, was crowned at Bury, on the Christmas-day of 856, being at the time only fifteen years old. In 870 he was taken prisoner by the Danes, and, as he was a Christian as well as an enemy, tortured to death. The Danes first scourged him, then bound him to a tree, and pierced his body all over with arrows; lastly they cut off his head, which they threw into a neighbouring wood. On the departure of these terrible visitors, the subjects of the murdered king sought his remains, that they might inter them with all the honour and reverence due alike to his position and his character. The body was found still attached to the fatal tree; this they buried in a wooden chapel at Hagilsdun, now Hoxne. For a time, all their endeavours to discover the head were ineffectual; but when forty days had elapsed, it was found between the fore-paws of a wolf, which, strange to say, yielded it up quietly, and stranger still, unmutilated, and then retired into the forest. No wonder that Lydgate the poet, who was a monk of Bury, observes, “An unkouth thyng, and strange ageyn nature.” The greatest marvel was yet behind. The head was taken to Hagilsdun, placed against the body in its natural position, when it united so closely with the latter, which was not at all decomposed, that the separation could hardly be traced. The corpse was subsequently removed to Bury, which hence obtained the name of Bury St. Edmunds. Events of this nature were calculated to call forth in the highest degree the pious enthusiasm of the people; and which found, as usual, its development in a magnificent house for religious men, whose lives should be devoted to the honour of the king, martyr, and saint, and of the God in whose service he had so worthily lived and died. Six priests first met, and formed the nucleus. Benefactors of every class, from the highest to the lowest, assisted in the good work; among the earliest of these may be named king Athelstane, and Edmund, son of Edward the Elder. But the time was inauspicious in many respects for rapid or safe progress. The Danes still threatened; and, on one occasion (just before Swein destroyed Bury, in the beginning of the eleventh century), Ailwin, guardian of the body of St. Edmund, conveyed it to London. In the metropolis a new perplexity arose: the Bishop of London, having obtained possession of the treasured remains, by a process that might almost be called a kind of felony, refused to give it up when Ailwin was prepared to return; the guardian, however, was immovably true to his trust, and so, after much altercation, it was again safely deposited in Bury. Peace at last blessed the land, and Ailwin began in earnest the erection of a place that should be esteemed suitable to the memory of him whose mausoleum it was in effect to be. In 1020 he ejected all the secular clergy, and filled their places with Benedictine monks, obtained their exemption from all episcopal authority, and, these preliminaries settled, began the erection of a beautiful church of wood. Two other churches were subsequently raised of the same material. But in 1065 Abbot Baldwyn laid the foundation of a fourth, of stone, and on the most magnificent scale. It was above five hundred feet long: the transept extended two hundred and twelve feet; the western front was two hundred and forty feet broad; no less than twelve chapels were attached in different parts: twelve years were spent in the erection. Of this grand structure there remain but portions of the west front: the chief are, a tower converted into a stable, and three arches, forming originally the entrances into the three aisles of the church, which the utilitarianism of the age has converted, no doubt with considerable self-congratulation at the ingenuity of the idea, into very snug and comfortable dwelling-houses. Notwithstanding all that we know of the influences that have been in operation during the last three centuries to injure or degrade those noble architectural monuments of our forefathers, it strikes one every now and then with a sense of surprise to see how extensive these injuries have been, involving, indeed, in many cases, the almost absolute destruction of piles that, before such influences began to operate, were in the most perfect and apparently indestructible state. When Leland looked upon Bury in the sixteenth century, and said the sun had not shone upon a more delightfully situated town, he added also, nor on “monastery more illustrious, whether we consider its wealth, its extent, or its incomparable magnificence. You might indeed say that the monastery itself is a town; so many gates are there, so many towers, and a church than which none can be more magnificent; and subservient to which are three others, also splendidly adorned with admirable workmanship, and standing in one and the same churchyard.” That was but little more than three centuries ago; yet of all these buildings, which, if even left uncared for to the uninterrupted processes of natural decay, would have exhibited as yet but mere superficial injury, what have we now left? Two of the three smaller churches, a tower and a few arches of the great one, a gateway and part of the walls of the monastery, and another gateway, or tower, which formed the entrance into the churchyard, opposite the western front of the monastic church: and that is, in effect, all. It is, indeed, difficult to believe in the truth of Leland’s description, and the description of other writers, who speak in minuter detail of the four grand gates to the abbey, the lofty embattled walls extending so far around, and enclosing, besides the four churches and the necessary monastic buildings of residence, a palace and garden for the abbot, chapter-house, infirmaries, churchyard and several chapels,—till we begin patiently to explore the traces yet to be found on the spot, and to remember the size and importance of that community which had here for so many centuries its abode. The household of St. Edmundsbury included some eighty monks, sixteen chaplains, and one hundred and eleven servants. The importance of the monastery is shown in its power and privileges. The abbot sat in parliament as a baron of the realm, and in his chapter-house and hall as something more. No sovereign, indeed, could be much more absolute. He appointed the parochial clergy of Bury—all civil and criminal causes arising within the place were tried within his court—the life and death of offenders were in his hand. The monastery coined its own money, and the monarch’s into the bargain, when it suited him to obtain its assistance: Edward I. and Edward II. both had mints here. It permitted no divided allegiance in the locality, whether of a spiritual or a temporal nature, and had a very summary mode of setting at rest any question of the kind that might arise. In the thirteenth century, some Franciscan friars came to Bury, and built a handsome monastery; but the monks having by that time, we presume, settled in their own minds that they did not like friars, went and pulled down their building, and drove its tenants forth from the town. Redress appears to have been quite out of the question. Another evidence of the importance of the monastery may be drawn from our knowledge of its wealth. At the dissolution, the commissioners of the king said they had taken from it in gold and silver five thousand marks, a rich cross with emeralds, and also divers stones of great value, but still left behind ample store of plate of silver for the service of the church, abbot, and convent. As to its revenues, a writer in 1727 said, they would have been equal at that time to the enormous sum of two hundred thousand pounds yearly.

We have already noticed the remains of the monastic church. The Abbey gate (Fig. 694) was erected in 1327, and is, therefore, above five centuries old, yet notwithstanding its age, and the entire destruction of its roof, remains surprisingly perfect. As a specimen of Gothic architecture it is at once majestic and superb; the height being no less than sixty-two feet, and the fronts, more particularly that on the western or exterior side, being decorated in the most gorgeously splendid style. Among the beautiful decorations of the interior of the gateway is much carved-work, including, in one part, the arms of the Confessor. But the tower leading into the churchyard (Fig. 695) is, considering its remoter antiquity, as well as its extraordinary magnificence, the most interesting of all the remains of this great religious establishment. It rises to the height of eighty feet, is simple and massive in form, but most elaborately beautiful in decoration—and pure unadulterated Saxon. It is, in a word, one of the finest things of the kind in existence. No records carry us back to the date of its erection. The sculpture upon it is exceedingly curious and valuable as the product of so early a time. Near the base on the western side are two bas-reliefs; in one of which Adam and Eve, entwined by the serpent, typify man in his fallen state; whilst in the other, the Deity is seen sitting in triumph in a circle of cherubim, as representative of man’s spiritual restoration. In the interior of the arch are some grotesque figures. The stone of which the edifice is built is remarkable for the number of small shells it contains. Through this gateway we pass to the churchyard, where, as we wander along an avenue of stately and fragrant lime-trees, we perceive, in different parts, the two churches of St. James and St. Mary, and the Shire-hall, erected on the site of the third and destroyed church of St. Margaret; various portions of the Abbey ruins; Clopton’s Hospital, a modern work of beneficence; and the Mausoleum, once the chapel of the charnel, where Lydgate is understood to have resided, and where possibly the greater part of his multifarious writings were composed. His case furnishes a valuable and instructive example of one of the uses of our monasteries—that of nurturing men of learning and literary ability. Lydgate was at once a traveller, a schoolmaster, a philologist, a rhetorician, a geometrician, an astronomer, a theologist, a disputant, a poet; and it is hardly too much to say, that he was all this chiefly because he was also a monk. How many such men may not these institutions have contained, but who did not, like Lydgate, seek for fame beyond the confines of their own monastery! Such encouragement as the Abbot of St. Edmundsbury gave to Lydgate was, in all probability, the rule rather than the exception, in such establishments generally. The pride in the reputation thus reflected upon their house, and the eternal craving for some kind of mental occupation and excitement, which no discipline could entirely eradicate, must have made many a superior encourage such studies, even when he had in himself no particular tendency towards them; but how much more when he had: and the frequency of the qualification “learning” recorded in accounts of election to monastic government shows that this must have been a matter of common occurrence. We need not then be surprised to see Lydgate allowed to master so many departments of knowledge, or to open a school in the monastery at Bury for teaching some of them, as he did, to the sons of the nobility of his day. Another and equally pleasant instance of the estimation in which he was held is commemorated by a most splendidly illuminated MS. now in the British Museum, forming a life of St. Edmund, and which he presented to Henry VI. when he visited the monastery in 1440: a pension of 71. 13s. 4d. was the monarch’s answering gift; a most princely one, according to the then value of money. Both the smaller churches, that we have mentioned as existing, are strikingly handsome. St. Mary’s has three aisles, divided by two rows of very elegant columns; and the roof of the middle aisle, sixty feet high, is beautifully carved. The roof of the chancel presents an additional feature, carved gilt work on a blue ground, supposed to have been brought from Caen in Normandy. In this church lies Mary Tudor, third daughter of Henry VII., and wife, first, of Louis XII. of France, and afterwards of the Duke of Suffolk: there also, in the middle of the chancel, rests the last Abbot of Bury, John Reeves.

Many events of historical importance are recorded in connection with the monastery. During the wars between Henry II. and his son, the forces of the former marched out of Bury with the sacred standard of St. Edmund, to a spot in the neighbourhood where the enemy was met with, and a battle fought, which ended in favour of the king: to the standard, of course, was attributed the honour of the victory. This incident probably suggested to Richard I. the idea of bringing to Bury the rich standard of Isaac, King of Cyprus, which he had taken whilst on his way to Acre and the Holy Land. But the most important of all such events were those connected with the baronial struggle for the great Charter. John arrived from France in October, 1214, full of rage and mortification at the defeat his forces had recently experienced at a place between Lisle and Tournay, and determined to repay himself for his sufferings and losses at the hands of the enemy by increased exactions from his own subjects. FitzPeter, the Justiciary, a man whom John feared, had died during his absence. He laughed as the news was imparted to him: “It is well,” said he; “in hell he may again shake hands with Hubert our late primate, for surely he will find him there. By God’s teeth, now, for the first time, I am King and Lord of England.” But the barons were prepared. A league had been already formed with Langton, the Cardinal, and they now agreed to meet: “The time is favourable,” they said: “the feast of St. Edmund approaches; amidst the multitudes that resort to his shrine, we may assemble without suspicion.” On the day in question, the 20th of November, they met, and resolved to demand their rights from the king, in his very court, on the coming Christmas-day. It was a hazardous undertaking, and one from which weak minds might easily be induced to draw back, to which faithless hearts might be as readily instigated to turn traitors; so the solemn sanction of the church was as it were invoked to deter both the one class and the other, if any such there were. The barons advancing in the order of their seniority, one by one, laid their hands on the high altar, and swore that if the king refused the rights they demanded, they would withdraw their fealty, and make war upon him, until he should yield. We need not follow their proceedings further, they are too well known; but the virtual conclusion of the memorable meeting at Bury was the still more memorable one on the plains of Runnymede. Several parliaments have been held in the monastery; the most noticeable is the one that sat in 1447 for the not very estimable or dignified purpose of promoting the object which Margaret, the Queen of Henry VI., and her favourite Suffolk, had so much at heart, namely, the destruction of the good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Of course that object was for a time concealed, and Gloucester, in consequence, went unsuspiciously to his fate. On the 11th of February, or the very day after the opening of the parliament, he was arrested on a charge of high treason. In less than three weeks from that time he was found dead in his bed, and although no marks of violence were visible when the body was publicly exhibited to the people of Bury St. Edmunds, the impression was universal that he had been murdered. The weak young king, who had consented to all but the last foul proceeding, “thus”—to use, with mere verbal alteration, the words Shakspere has put into the mouth of Gloucester, in the Second Part of Henry VI.—

———————King Henry threw away his crutch,

Before his legs were firm to bear his body:

Thus was the shepherd beaten from his side,

When wolves were gnarling who should gnaw him first.

But for Gloucester’s sudden death, we might have known nothing of the wars of the Roses.