Days when the monks held all the aces

THE cover picture tells you all you need to know. Towering above the fields and low-level homes of the medieval town is the imposing abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

THE cover picture tells you all you need to know. Towering above the fields and low-level homes of the medieval town is the imposing abbey of Bury St Edmunds. One of the biggest Romanesque edifices in Europe, it looks powerful and it was powerful.

One of the wealthiest and most privileged Benedictine abbeys in medieval England, its position was secured by the fact it was home to the shrine of martyr St Edmund and his remains. He had been captured, brutally killed and beheaded by the Danes in 869 while attempting to stand up to the Viking raiders.

That wasn't all.

As one of just five monasteries in England under the direct control of the pope, it could virtually run its own show and didn't have to worry about interference from the diocese or London.

It also controlled vast amounts of land, and no minister or official of the crown could enter the town itself without the express agreement of the abbot.

It was Edward the Confessor who in 1044 had given the abbot power over a swathe of west Suffolk, known as the Liberty of St Edmund.

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And it was a French abbot called Baldwin, who served for more than three decades in the second half of the 11th Century, who is said to have triggered the building of the majestic church, with the town doubling in size.

The abbey was set for a halcyon period, although naturally it wasn't always plain sailing. There were internal niggles, local politicking, and sometimes friction with those outside the religious community. A sort of medieval version of EastEnders, if you like.

Towards the end of the 12th Century, for instance, the monks told the abbot, Samson of Tottington, that Bury's burgesses - freeman or citizens of the borough - were metaphorically elbowing their way into the market areas. (In the 1120s King Henry I had confirmed that the abbey was entitled to hold a market and receive the charges from it.) Worse, rents were being paid to the reeves - local town officials - rather than the convent.

Actually, quarrels over markets arose a number of times in the 13th Century, because of the money they could generate for a religious community owning the rights.

There was concern about the effect the market at Lakenheath, run under a charter held by the monks of Ely. King John was persuaded to order the Lakenheath operation to shut down. An unfortunate bailiff was despatched to ensure it happened, only to be greeted with violence and abuse, and so the abbot then sent out 600 armed men to do the job properly.

The abbey's fortunes soared in the late 1100s - a crucial period that is captured in a new book by medieval historian Antonia Gransden, former Reader at the University of Nottingham.

She says there's a rich archive of material about the abbey, including about 40 registers and cartularies - collections of deeds or charters - but no-one has tried to put together an all-encompassing study since Albert Goodwin's The Abbey of St. Edmundsbury in 1931.

There has, in the meantime, been important work published, including translations of the abbey's three most important chronicles. Among them The Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds 1212-1301, which came out in 1964 and which she edited.

Unfortunately, historians have tended to take specific views rather than looking at the whole picture - concentrating on the religious aspects, say, or economic affairs.

This new tome, A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256, Volume 1, aims to provide a comprehensive account of abbey life.

It traces the careers of the abbots, starting with Samson, who was in office from 1182 to 1211, and examines their relationships with tenants, neighbours and the king, and conflict with central government.

Chapters are also devoted to the monks' religious, cultural and intellectual life, and their writings, book collections and archives.

That era, she says, has been comparatively neglected by historians, yet it's of exceptional interest.

“It was a period of monastic reform and, during it, royal, clerical and papal taxation first became a problem for monastic finances. In addition, religious houses had to weather the political crises of the period, notably the Barons' War and its aftermath.

“St Edmunds, being one of the wealthiest and most highly privileged abbeys in England, was closely affected by national events - its history, indeed, is an integral part of the political, administrative and economic history of England.”

The abbot was the pivotal figure, she explains to the EADT, giving the abbeys their drive and direction - or not. They were elected, though their appointment needed to be confirmed by the king and the pope.

“Jocelin” - more of him in a moment - “explains very well how the monks could manipulate the king to appoint who they wanted. I think this was less so as time went on, but in the period I deal with the monks still had most of the say.

“People are always on about Parliament being our first democracy, but it started in the religious orders, with the Dominicans and then the Benedictines.”

A rich insight comes from this “absolute genius” Jocelin of Brackland, essentially Samson's biographer, who recorded the life and times of abbey life from 1173 to 1202. His writings depict everything from the pattern of daily worship to the sotto voce chatter within the cloister and the noisier hubbub of Bury life on the other side of the abbey walls.

Antonia says she strove to paint a comprehensive picture of what was going on, but it was difficult to tell if she'd got the balance right as the manuscripts being relied upon were invariably produced or commissioned by the abbey.

“You're talking about a class of people who are really equivalent to the baronial elite, and to get any glimpse of the ordinary people you have to turn to the economic history. Everything is tipped in favour of the monks - and they were pretty ruthless!”

So, what was life like?

There were essentially two categories of monk, she explains. Cloister monks kept the round of services going.

“It's quite clear from Jocelin that their piety was very real. Some of it we would consider superstitious. But they did believe tremendously in St Edmund and his posthumous power, and of course that's the point one has to make about Bury: it was a shrine church.” It held his remains. “Lots of churches were not.

“Cloister monks would have believed that St Edmund posthumously protected them and looked after them. That was a very important part of their religious life.”

The other type were the obedientiaries - monastic officials. “They were running the estate, and keeping up the fabric of the church.”

The abbot - with his own palace, and attending Parliament - was separate to the convent. “His politics were not necessarily the same as the monks.”

Enough potential structural faultlines, then, for the occasional festering of tensions . . . Jocelin describes some disputes.

“Abbot Samson would be reduced to tears; and he was afraid they were going to murder him and all this sort of thing. They were annoyed because he thought their cellarer was inefficient” - the official in charge of foodstuffs - “so he took over the office and started running it with his people. It's terribly complicated . . .”

And what about life for the people of the market town outside the walls?

“Again, I think you have to divide them.

“There were revolts against the power of the abbey, which had exempt jurisdiction within the borough. That meant they were exempt from Episcopal authority and also from royal administration. The abbey was responsible for running the town and keeping order there. If they didn't keep order, the king would intervene. But it was a franchise.

“There were the burgesses - the rich townspeople - who might be on very good terms with the abbot. Some of the burgesses might be lending money to the abbot. But the craftsmen and the lower orders” - and bury at this time was a rich manufacturing and trading centre - “might be very opposed.”

“It's very easy to say it was a matter of town against abbey, but it wasn't really as simple as that.”

How does history view Abbot Samson?

“I think he was a great man. He was an autocrat but he was fine and did some very good things.

“He founded a grammar school and provided free tuition to the students. He founded St Saviour's Hospital, which gave charity, accommodation and so on to the poor. He endowed it very generously; partly with his own property.

“And he also, which Jocelin thinks is terribly important, recovered the manor of Mildenhall. It had originally belonged to St Edmunds (the abbey) but he bought it back from Richard I.

“Mildenhall was the richest of all Bury's manors and did provision the monks with a lot of what they needed. Mildenhall was one of what are called the food farms.”

After Samson's death came “rather an obscure period, with a succession of four abbots. The problem with them isn't that they weren't able but they had a much shorter rule than Samson did. They're documented in archives, but there's no chronicle for them”. The second volume will deal with “two very able abbots”, Simon of Luton and John of Northwold.

Antonia's original ambition was to cover the history of the abbey right up to the end, but she's stopping in 1301.

The abbey's power did, of course, eventually run out. Some inhabitants of Bury staged riots and rebellions in the 1300s; and before the 1530s had drawn to a close, the final abbot - John Reeve - the prior and monks surrendered the abbey, its possessions and estates to Henry VIII's commissioners as the monasteries were dissolved.

Today, the fine gateway is a reminder of former glories, and folk stepping through it can enjoy the pleasant Abbey Gardens and walk among the ruins.

Seven- or eight-hundred years earlier, the abbey precinct had crackled like a vibrant mini-city. Dozens and dozens of monks beavered away and prayed, and other staff and servants toiled alongside.

The monks produced Biblical texts and other works, building up a massive library that eventually ran to between 1,500 and 2,000 volumes - of which about 270 remain.

It's suggested, though not universally felt to be true, that two-dozen or so barons met in 1214 and determined to force King John to endorse the Magna Carta, which he later did.

The document - its name is Latin for Great Charter - states that no man is above the law and enshrines the right against unlawful imprisonment, the right to a speedy trial and the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers.

Antonia has been working on her study, on and off, for nearly 30 years - “When I was doing a full-time job (at Nottingham University) “it was quite difficult to get on with it enough” - and reveals that her fascination with Bury St Edmunds' abbey arose by chance.

After Somerville College, Oxford, she went to the manuscripts department of the British Museum as an assistant keeper. In the reading room, one job was to check manuscripts after people had been studying them.

“It just happened that one of the books I turned over to check was the chronicle of Bury. So that made me pursue it.”

What does she hope her book will achieve?

“Well, I hope people will enjoy reading it. I don't write for entertainment, but I certainly do try not to be dull!

“I don't believe in popularising history, but I do believe it ought to be readable. It is a story. If you bore people stiff, you're not doing your subject any favours. Some academic books I do find extremely tedious.

“I'm not sure I believe in learning the lessons of history except insofar as you learn about human nature and you learn how to judge things.

“My stepfather was in the Indian civil service and he said that, really, people who rate history made the best civil servants because they knew how to balance things - to look at both sides of the argument. I think history should teach you that.

“Nowadays we'd save an awful lot of trouble, wouldn't we, if people listened to those on the other side of disputes, rather than blundering on, saying 'This is right.'”

A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256, is published by Boydell Press at £60. ISBN 9781843833246

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