Explore Bury St Edmunds Literary Connections

Charles Dickens, Ruth Rendell, Norah Lofts and the bard himself, William Shakespeare have included Bury St Edmunds in their works.

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers and The Angel Hotel 

You can’t miss the blue plaque at the front of The Angel Hotel, installed on the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth to commemorate his three visits. 

Dickens first stayed at The Angel in 1835 as a journalist for the Morning Chronicle (staying in what was then room 11). 

In 1859 and 1861 he returned to read to a captive audience at the nearby Athenaeum, staying in what is now room 215, AKA the Charles Dickens Suite (pictured).

Bury St Edmunds and The Angel itself feature extensively in The Pickwick Papers. In Chapters 16 Mr Pickwick and his manservant Sam arrive at Bury St. Edmunds, on the trail of the charlatan Alfred Jingle:

"Beg your pardon, sir,' said Sam, suddenly breaking off in his loquacious discourse. “Is this Bury St. Edmunds?”

'It is,” replied Mr. Pickwick. 

The coach rattled through the well paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.

“And this,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking up, “is the Angel! We alight here, Sam.”

When Sam and Pickwick hear Jingle plans to elope with a girl from a nearby boarding school, Pickwick hides in the school grounds as part of a plan to save her, causing panic among the teachers and boarders “all half-dressed and in a forest of curl-papers”. It is thought this school may have been based on a school open in the 1850s on 42 and 43 Southgate Street.  

From his diary, we know Dickens was very fond of Bury and its inhabitants. "Last night I read Copperfield at Bury St Edmunds to a very fine audience,” he wrote. “I don’t think a word – not to say an idea – was lost.”

William Shakespeare’s royal drama in Bury St Edmunds’ Abbey  

In Henry VI, Part II, Shakespeare dramatises King Henry VI’s summoning of parliament to the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds, and the death of the Duke of Gloucester. The Abbey ruins can be seen in the town’s stunning Abbey Gardens today.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was allegedly murdered at St Saviours Hospital on Fornham Road near the Abbey’s North Gate. This medieval hospital was the town’s most prestigious, originally established in the late 12th century for ailing monks. The ruins can still be seen: look out for the plaque recording the Duke’s suspicious death here in 1447.

As uncle of Henry VI and heir to the throne, the Duke of Gloucester was a powerful man with many enemies, including the Duke of Suffolk. In Shakespeare’s drama, it is Suffolk who accuses Gloucester of treason. 

Norah Lofts’ House at Old Vine

Best-selling author Norah Lofts lived in Bury St Edmunds from the age of 10, and a blue plaque signifies the house on Northgate Street where she lived until her death in 1983.

At Northgate House (pictured), Lofts wrote more than fifty books, several of which were made into films. Often considered her finest work, the Suffolk Trilogy, published between 1959 and 1963, was described as “the most outstanding historical novel that I have ever read” by The Independent’s Alison Weir, who calls Lofts “one of the great writers of the twentieth century”. 

These books tell the stories of a cast of characters connected with The House at Old Vine, a townhouse set in Baildon, a fictional version of Bury St Edmunds, from the late 14th century through to the 1950s.  

Ruth Rendell: murder and mystery in Bury St Edmunds 

Suffolk’s Queen of Crime, Ruth Rendell chose Bury St Edmunds and its surroundings as the setting for The Brimstone Wedding. Rendell lived in the village of Polstead for part of her life and was very familiar with West Suffolk.  

Written under the pen name Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding is a murder mystery exploring love and madness. 

“And it isn’t quite true that Rex died in a train,” main character Stella says to Jenny when they are discussing the mystery surrounding the man’s death. “He was taken ill in a train. He died in hospital in Bury.”

Defoe, Coleridge, Kingsley and Thackery 

Throughout the centuries, Bury St Edmunds has drawn many other literary greats, including Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, who visited in 1704.

“It is a town fam’d for its pleasant situation and wholesome air, the Montpelier of Suffolk, and perhaps of England,” he wrote.

In the early 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Thomas and Catherine Clarkson, the leading campaigners against the slave trade, at their home in Horse Market (now called St Mary's Square). 

And in 1860, The Athenaeum, which overlooks the Abbey, hosted the Rev Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho and The Water Babies, as well as W M Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair.  

Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival 

Today, literature lovers in Bury St Edmunds can indulge in the Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival – new for 2018.

Sarah Perry, author of Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2016 The Essex Serpent, will be joining the already confirmed Louis de Bernières, best known for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, to meet readers at the event which runs from October 25th to 29th.

Helen Callaghan, bestselling author of 'Dear Amy' will appear at the festival to talk about her life, her work and her upcoming novel, followed by a book signing. Plus, Patrick Barkham, the natural history columnist for The Guardian newspaper, and author of 'Islander' (a journey around Britain's islands and their people) will be speaking about his work and what inspires it.

More events are to be announced.