The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds
with Dr Francis Young (Independent Scholar)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 8th July, 2017.
As the millennium of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds approaches in 2020, this study day provides a comprehensive introduction to one of England’s greatest monastic houses, which dominated the spiritual and political landscape of Suffolk for over 500 years and continues to define the identity of the town that took its name. The resting place of the incorrupt body of East Anglia’s last Wuffing king was England’s pre-eminent pilgrimage shrine by the end of the eleventh century and boasted the largest church in Western Europe. In this study day we shall explore the origins, achievements, conflicts and legacy of the mighty abbey.
09.50 – 10.15: Coffee on arrival
10.15 – 11.15: 1. Origins
In this opening session, we shall explore the origins of the Abbey, from the death of St Edmund in 869 to the completion of the Abbey church in the 1090s. The Abbey’s eleventh-century struggle with the bishops of Elmham, Thetford and then Norwich led to the forgery of numerous documents that make it difficult to separate fact from myth. This session will try to disentangle the real story as well as assessing the contribution of Bury’s longest serving abbot, Baldwin: scholar, physician, builder and politician.
11.15 – 11.40: Coffee break
11.40 – 12.40: 2. Achievement
In the twelfth century Bury St Edmunds became a European centre of art, culture and scholarship. A flourishing medical school was established and pioneering steps taken in free education for boys. In this session, we will meet Bury’s great twelfth-century abbots Anselm and Samson, as well as the versatile artist Master Hugo. The session will examine the surviving treasures of the Abbey, such as the Bury Bible, Vatican Psalter and Cloisters Cross as well as the evidence for the Abbey’s vast library, the largest in England after Oxford University’s.
12.40 – 14.00: Lunch break
14.00 – 14.50: 3. Conflict
By the thirteenth century the town of Bury St Edmunds was large, flourishing and straining against the restrictions placed on it by the Abbots. In 1327 simmering resentments exploded into full-blown civil war between the townsfolk and monks which almost destroyed the Abbey. In 1381 rebels again occupied the Abbey and killed the Prior, and conflict lingered into the sixteenth century. In this session we shall explore the theme of conflict between Abbey and town, examining the origins of discontent and evaluating the extent to which the Abbey was to blame for its own unpopularity.
14.50 – 15.10: Tea break
15.10 – 16.00: 4. Legacy
St Edmund’s Abbey was dissolved on 4th November 1539 but the institutions it had created lingered down to the nineteenth century in some cases, dominating the town of Bury St Edmunds. In this final session, we will examine the Abbey’s ongoing influence after the Reformation, including the re-foundation of the monastery in Paris by English Benedictine monks in 1615 and the attempts of antiquaries, archaeologists and historians to reconstruct the Abbey and its history and interpret it to the public. We will also look at what the future may hold for this crucial part of Suffolk’s heritage.
c.16.00: Thanks and Close
About Dr Francis Young
Francis Young is the author of the first complete history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds from foundation to dissolution, The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery (Lasse Press, 2016), as well as numerous other books on the history of Suffolk including Where is St Edmund? (2014), The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism (2015) and the official history of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, Catholic East Anglia (2016). He was born and brought up in Bury St Edmunds and obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge. Francis Young is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Volumes Editor for the Catholic Record Society.
When asked ‘What was best about the day?‘ respondents at a previous Study Day by Francis said:
- Excellent speaker in Dr Young. Very erudite
- Best was the amount of information on St Edmund
- The subject, St Edmund, was fascinating. Speaker excellent as always. Content well delivered, well organised etc. Really good day, very detailed but very understandable.
- Very interesting day
- All fascinating. Subject matter so well grounded in historical records (could have spun off into unreality given topic). However also balanced by folk tales
Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading
Margaret Statham, The Book of Bury St Edmunds, 2nd edition (Whittlebury: Baron Birch, 1996)
Arthur B. Whittingham, Bury St Edmunds Abbey (English Heritage Guide, 2012) –based on Whittingham’s original article of 1951
Francis Young, The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery (Norwich: Lasse Press, 2016)
Several articles on the Abbey published in Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History (PSIAH for short) are available for free via the Institute’s website. These include:
J. M. Maltby, ‘Excavations of the Abbey ruins, Bury St Edmunds’, PSIAH 24 (1948), pp. 256–7.
Christopher Dyer, ‘The rising of 1381 in Suffolk: its origins and participants’, PSIAH 36 (1988), pp. 274–87.
Philip McAleer, ‘The west façade complex at the Abbey Church of Bury St Edmunds: a description of the evidence for its reconstruction’, PSIAH 39 (1998), pp. 127–50.