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10 Abbots of the Abbey of St Edmund

Discover 10 of the Abbots who played a role in the Abbey of St Edmund's 1000 year history...

There were 33 abbots from the founding of the Abbey by King Cnut in 1020 till its dissolution in 1539 by Henry VIII. The first being Uvius and the last John Reeve aka De Melford. The abbey owned, taxed and controlled the town with the mitred abbots sitting in parliament representing the town. In that 519 year period, 10 in particular played a significant role, here we introduce you to the 10 Abbotts of the Abbey of St Edmundsbury...

1. Baldwin, his Abbacy 1065-1097. The 3rd abbot.

The reason Bury St Edmunds does not have a castle is that when the Normans invaded in 1066, the town was in the control of this French abbot, so a castle was not required to subdue the inhabitants.

Baldwin had been a monk of St Denis in Paris and on the death of Abbot Leofstan he was invited to leave his then position as the Prior of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire to become the abbot of St Edmundsbury Abbey.

Not only was the physician who looked after the earthly bodies of King Edward the Confessor and Duke William of Normandy, but he laid out the grid of our town still evident today, thus making it possibly the oldest laid out town in the country. According to the Domesday Book between 1066 and 1086 there were 342 houses built on land previously under the plough. This was proper urban expansion, obviously being timber framed nothing survives above ground.

Where todays St James Cathedral is today Baldwin built a church dedicated to St Denis. Baldwin would also commence building the great Abbey Church of St Edmund in 1081 demolishing the wooden church that once held the body of St Edmund, (also interred in the rotunda church given by King Cnut in 1020).

Baldwin had a run-in with Bishop Herfast of the North Elham See in Norfolk,later to be in Thetford who had wanted the blessed saint for his own ends. However, Baldwin appealed to William who then conferred that St Edmundsbury abbey would be free of episcopal control. With this patronage Baldwin was able to increase the original 20 Benedictine monks given by Cnut to 80.

As all religious buildings were begun at their east end, thus it was that in 1095 the Abbey Church east end was sufficiently progressed to receive the body of Edmund, its proper term, translated. Two years later Baldwin died, around eighty years old. He was buried in the Choir of the church.

2. Anselm, his Abbacy 1121-1148. The 7th abbot.

Anselm, an Italian had been abbot of St Saba basilica in Rome and was the nephew of the Archbishop of Canterbury also called Anselm (later to be a saint). After the death of Abbot Albold the sixth abbot, nepotism probably ensured Anselm being nominated for the abbacy of St Edmundsbury. There was some confusion at one time as to whether he would take up the post because he was also put forward to become the Bishop of London; Prior Ording of the abbey had been elected by the convent to be abbot in his absence. Eventually Ording acquiesced and Anselm would become one of the great builders of the abbey.

It was his Italian upbringing that Anselm’s designs for a stand-alone bell tower, a campanile favoured in Italian architecture caused this fine Norman building to be built; now the belfry for the cathedral. It was built of Barnack stone, quarried from the Northamptonshire border as would the rest of the wonderful Abbey Church. Anslem’s two able sacrists (accountable for the infrastructure) Ralph and Hervey would also build much of the nave of the Abbey Church.

Whilst more of the Abbey Church was being built, Anselm realised Baldwin’s church of St Denis was going to be in the way of the north-west tower of the Abbey Church, so he had that demolished and a new church then dedicated to St James. The reasoning for this name was that that he was going to make a pilgrimage to Santiago De Compestela the final resting place of St James but was persuaded to remain in Bury St Edmunds to attend to his religious duties.

During his abbacy, Anselm also had walls constructed around the concourse of the abbey and the dedication of the High Altar Cross at the east end of the nave. The great bronze doors of the West Front were also supposed to have been made by Master Hugo around this time. This exceptional talented artist and skilled worker may also have been responsible for the wonderful illuminated Bury Bible and the incredible Bury Cross carved from Morse (walrus) ivory.

Anselm’s legacy, that of the Norman Tower is still evident today thanks to a major restoration programme during the mid 19thC. However, it is still one of the finest Norman buildings in the country and is now the Cathedral’s belfry.

3. Ording, his Abbacy 1148- 1157. The 8th abbot.

With the death of Anselm, Ording was able to finally take possession of the Abbot’s mitre albeit for a shorter term than he probably deserved as there had been a dispute with Anselm. As with his predecessor, Ording requested that the town pay to the abbey its rents for the services within the Abbey Church and as a good administrator he defended the rights of the abbey.

A few years into his term of office a terrible calamity happened when fire swept through important parts of the abbey, destroying the refectory, abbot’s palace, infirmary and several other buildings. Ording would spend most of his life in the rebuilding of these with the help of his nephew, Helyas who was the Sacrist.

During Ording’s term of office the country was plunged into civil war between Stephen, Count of Blois, the son of William the Conqueror and Matilda, daughter of Henry 1st. Though Stephen was crowned as king it would be Matilda’s son Henry who would become Henry 2nd. The reason being is that Stephen’s heir, the young hot-headed Prince Eustace died at Bury St Edmunds.

Stephen De Blois as a young child was tutored by Ording so this future King of England would be very kind in his dealings with the abbey. Not so his son, Prince Eustace, Count of Boulogne who threatened to despoil the abbey but died suddenly whilst in Bury St Edmunds in 1153. All this did was to raise the profile of St Edmund as a saint not to be trifled with.

On the death of Ording his body was interred in a stone coffin within the Chapter House. There it would remain until New-Years Day 1903 when it would be exhumed along with four other abbots in their coffins, Edmund de Walpole, Richard of the Isle of Ely (Insular), Henry de Rushbrooke and Samson. A grave containing what is thought to house the body of Hugh 1st  did not have a coffin. New coffin lids with fresh lettering cost £8 12 shillings (pre-decimal money); if any extra letters were required, they were charged at one old penny per letter by Hanchets the local stonemasons. Although the abbot’s bodies were all re-buried, their coffins are still visible today in the Chapter House, the merest of glimpses of those who were once in power at this great abbey. See Bury Past & Present website for photographs of the abbot’s skeletons in their coffins.

4. Samson, his abbacy 1182-1211. The 10th abbot

We know so much about Abbot Samson of Tottington in Norfolk thanks to an amazing account of the abbey by a monk there, Jocelin de Brakelond. He entered the monastery in 1173 and when Samson was elected Abbot in 1182, Joscelin became his personal chaplain. His chronicle was kept going throughout the abbacy of Samson, though it stops eight years before Samson’s death, Jocelin did in fact outlive him. It was said the red-haired Samson preached in his Norfolk dialect, being one of the most charismatic of the abbots.

On Palm Sunday, 1190, a terrible event occurred in the town when Jews from Heathenmen’s Street, todays Hatter Street fled to the abbey for sanctuary. They were chased there by the townspeople who accused them of crucifying a young boy later to become St Robert. Unfortunately, the abbey gate was closed shut on the Jews by Samson. He quoted “they are not St Edmunds men”. Fifty-seven were massacred. A memorial to this event, a stainless-steel teardrop can be found in the abbey gardens today. However, a theory abounded that Abbot Hugh 1st, Samson’s predecessor had borrowed money from the Jews, what better way to annul a debt than to get rid of those you owe it too!

Two years later saw the capture of Richard 1st on his return from the Crusades, he was a close friend of Samson, consequently Samson took some of the ransom over to Germany where Richard was being held, this ransom may have included the wonderful Bury Cross. Mind you Samson was not frightened to bear arms in a good cause, even attending a siege at Windsor.

As is want there was another disastrous fire at the abbey in 1198, but this time it was St Edmunds Shrine that caught alight. Though the shrine was undamaged in the dead of night Samson and 12 trusted monks opened Edmund’s coffin. It was found to be well covered and his body uncorrupted, the sure sign of a saint. Samson intrepidly looked upon the body and commented with respect on the largeness of Edmund’s nose! This would be the last time that Edmund’s body would be verified as being in the abbey. Samsom died in old age and was one of the abbots buried in the Chapter House. Alongside his body was a lead cross and a silver tip of a religious staff or crozier. It is now in Moyses Hall Museum.

5. Hugh II of Northwold his abbacy 1215-1248. The 11th abbot

Hugh’s appointment was fraught with contention, dispute and intrigue. The convent of the abbey was split into two factions as to whom of two candidates for the abbacy should be elected. Even the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton who wanted to ensure that the procedures in the election would be followed by canon law failed. Unfortunately for all, the figure of King John loomed large on the horizon wanting to ‘flex his muscles’. After all he had just had a six-year interdict on the country and his excommunication lifted in 1214 for failing to accept the Pope’s choice of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. John wanted a say in who was chosen as abbot.

In the end the Sacrist Robert of Gravely and the Sub-Cellarer Hugh of Northwold in Norfolk, the preferred candidate was sent before three papal judges. Each applicant was supported by three referees who pleaded their cases. With Hugh winning he had to decide how best to deal with the sacrist who declined to work with him. Fortunately, this problem was solved when Robert of Gravely was appointed the abbot of Thorney.

When Langton heard of Hugh’s election, he raised his hands to heaven exclaiming “Glory be to God the Highest! For now, in this way the church has triumphed!” King John reconciled with Hugh later at Runnymede even sitting down to dine with him at Windsor, but the king did not forgive Gravely.

It is now an accepted fact that 25 barons did come to Bury St Edmunds in 1214, but not on Edmunds martyrdom day of November 20th. For many years, academics et al decried that the barons never came here at all. The barons swore an oath to compel King John to agree to Magna Carta, which happened at Runnymede in 1215.  Bury St Edmunds is very proud of this Magna Carta connection, the town motto of “Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law” is fundamental to the laws of this land.

Hugh would go onto become an assize judge and in 1228 became Bishop of Ely. He died in August 1254 and his splendid effigy tomb in the north aisle in Ely Cathedral has a nice acknowledgement to St Edmund, at the foot of the coffin are figures purporting to be St Edmund and two of his would be slayers plus Edmunds head with a wolf looking after it!

6. Simon de Luton, his abbacy 1256-1279. The 15th abbot

Simon de Luton aka Luyton was a judicious monk and successfully held the three highest offices of the abbey, sacrist, prior and abbot.

He was the first English abbot to travel to Rome to have confirmed his appointment as abbot, this was carried out by Pope Alexander 4th. The reason for travelling so far was that his predecessor, Edmund de Walpole (also buried in the Chapter House) was elected after controversy with the then pope, Innocent IV who actively encouraged bribery to the delegation of three monks sent to have Walpole validated as abbot. 

It was after this debacle that Simon received confirmation and benediction from Rome and consequently in future it was decided all proposed abbots were to present themselves in person at the Papal Court. Whether this continued for long is a matter of conjecture.

During his abbacy Simon had to deal with significant incursions within the Banleuca the area of land given by King Edmund of the West Saxons in 945. This area of land approx. one mile by one mile enabled the monastery here at what was then Beodericsworth to collect tithes and taxes, a right it jealously guarded.

During 1238 Franciscan Friars had set up home in an area to the south in what we know today as Friars Lane. This was directly against the will of the abbey as the Friars could be looked upon as rivals to Bury’s Benedictine abbey. Twice they were removed but in 1265 with the support and patronage of the powerful baron, Gilbert De Clare, Earl of Gloucester who ignominiously had led a massacre of Jews in Canterbury in 1264, the Friars finally settled at the Babwell Fen (todays Priory Hotel).

This year also saw riots in the town when some of the younger burgesses or freemen of the town had tried to set up a guild in the town and issued demands of the abbot, the riots only quelled by the intervention of older heads!

In 1275, Simon had completed the building of the Lady Chapel near the crossing. During its building parts of an earlier stone church were uncovered possibly that of Cnut. Simon died at his Long Melford Manor in 1279. 

7. John de Northwold, his abbacy 1279-1301. The 16th abbot

Probably related to Abbot Hugh II of Northwold, 1215-29, the 11th abbot.

The practice of travelling to Rome as Simon de Luton did was carried on by Abbot John to confirm his position though at quite a considerable cost to the abbey.

Throughout John’s abbacy there were various disputes with commoners and royalty alike which he had to treat diplomatically. As Samson had had problems with the merchants of London not wanting to pay their tolls so John did. Also, on one occasion the Prior of Chippenham with 12 specified freemen of that town argued over payment of dues, an agreement was struck whereby only goods made or raised on their own lands were exempted from any tax.

The murder in 1293 of the Parson of Odell had two suspects for this crime. John instructed his sacrist to denounce these in all the churches until they appeared before him in the Abbey Church where they were eventually purged.

In another incident in 1284, John had problems with the right of the King’s clerk of the market to hold his court in Bury t Edmunds, it was only resolved after a while. In 1291, King, Edward 1st who came to the town at different times, even holding parliament here, seized all the Liberties in England including that of St Edmund (to become West Suffolk) to pay for his wars. Edward eventually had to concede after protracted negotiations that this would not become a precedent.

A year before John of Northwold’s death in 1301 a building still with us today was consecrated by him in the Great Churchyard, The Charnel House. John was deeply concerned with how bones of the deceased which were found during the digging of a new grave were in his own words, “indecently cast forth and left”. Two chamberlains were entrusted to say prayers on a regular basis over those buried in the crypt. After the dissolution in 1539 the Charnel House became a blacksmith’s forge and an inn of all things.

It was in 1845 over 300 years after the dissolution that some poor soul fell through the floor of The Charnel House and was surrounded by thousands of bones. It is now one of only a surviving handful in the country.

8. Richard de Draughton his abbacy 1312-1335. The 18th abbot

The abbacy of Richard de Draughton was marked by periods of drought, famine and insurrections the like of which the abbey had never known. Even from his confirmation as abbot in 1312 it was recognised that the abbey was in dire straits financial-wise.

In 1325 the somewhat eccentric King Edward II spent Christmas at St Edmundsbury Abbey, confirming new charters on it. Two years later, 1327, year of national unrest, would see the grim demise of the king at Berkeley Castle, it would also see an uprising against the all-powerful abbeys control of the town which would have a major effect on Richard De Draughton.

Early this year following a meeting at the Guildhall an assembled mob decided that there should be a measure of self-rule and the right to retain part or all the dues paid to the abbey. Under the auspices of their newly elected Alderman (not sanctioned by the Abbot), John De Berton, the townspeople attacked the abbey, cancelled any debts to the abbey and compelled Draughton to agree to their demands via a new charter. He said he needed to get it validated by parliament but on arrival at London he had it nullified. On Draughtons return, Berton was enraged and with the help of even the Franciscan Friars from Babwell the abbey was attacked, buildings burnt down including the Abbeygate.

The result of all this was a massive fine of £14, 000, the arrest by the Sheriff of Norfolk of Berton and his co-conspirator Gilbert Barbour and they along with 30 cartloads of prisoners being hauled off to prison in Norwich. The two leaders escaped and took sanctuary at Babwell, from there they tracked down and kidnapped De Draughton from his manor at Chevington taking him to Brabant in the Netherlands.

Nearly a year later he returned, Berton was thrown in jail where he probably died but Barbour’s fate is unknown. The huge fine was eventually reduced but it took years for the town to recover and a new re-sited Abbeygate to be finished in 1348 long after the death of the hapless Richard De Droughton.

9. William De Curteys his abbacy 1429-1446. The 25th Abbot

A well-respected abbot who was not only pious but savvy. A year into his abbacy he had to contend with a major catastrophe that saw the collapse of the huge tower at the abbey’s west front. Blame was attached to previous sacrists who had not maintained it adequately.

He made an agreement in 1430 with Herman Redmond and John Arnold both brickmakers of Chevington to ‘burn bricks’ for him. As the town was still mainly timber framed this was a departure from the norm and one wonders what usage these bricks were put to.

Another unusual episode in the history of the abbey was the creation of a major library by the monk John of Boston. He not only catalogued some 2,000 books of one of the largest libraries in the country but ensured that those who failed to return those on loan would feel the full weight of the wrath of the abbot, they would be excommunicated!

It was 1433 that a visit at Christmas by the 11-year old King, Henry VI, still in his minority that was probably the foremost event in Curteys life. News of the kings visit with his large entourage was unexpected and 500 people representing the great and the good of the town all wearing scarlet or red livery rode out to meet the king on Newmarket Heath.

The king stayed until Easter nearly bankrupting the abbey due to the cost of provisioning them. Whilst here the abbot had the brainwave of asking notably talented monk of the abbey, John Lydgate to write, The Life of St Edmund, King and Martyr. This wonderful illuminated manuscript including an illustration of Edmunds shrine, now in the British Library was ultimately presented by Abbot John to the king who gratefully received it. Lydgate had entered Bury Abbey at 15, attended Oxford and Cambridge and was well supported by Henry’s uncle and guardian, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, a great patron of the arts.

He was found dead in mysterious circumstances at St Saviours Hospital in Bury on February 23rd, 1447; Abbot Curteys had died in 1446 but before passing away he had celebrated mass at Henry’s tour-de-force, Kings College, oddly John Wastell was responsible for its build, he lived in Crown Street. Henry also died mysteriously in 1471 in the Tower of London after ruling in two separate reigns.

10. John Reeve aka de Melford his abbacy 1514- 1540. 33rd and last abbot

An able administrator, John Reeve has the dubious recognition as the last abbot of this the 5th richest Benedictine abbey in the country. However, like all his predecessors he had to contend with disputes with the townspeople, for in 1520 they were unhappy about the high rents extracted by the abbey. This along with the fact that the abbot and his principal officers were living off the fat of their land did not sit well at all with the people.

In 1533 the lavish funeral of the younger sister of Henry VIII, Mary Brandon, Queen of France with a huge cortege and French heralds was the last great event at the abbey church prior to the dissolution in 1539.  She was laid to rest in a great alabaster tomb, no doubt with Abbot Reeve officiating. Neither Henry nor Charles Brandon, her husband attended the funeral. When that fateful day came and the abbey despoiled, she was moved soon afterwards to a somewhat plainer tomb in St Marys.

With the Act of Supremacy and Henry established as the head of the newly created, Church of England in 1534 he looked to the wealth of the monasteries. In 1538 his commissioners arrived at the abbey and were surprised at how well run it was, a testament to John Reeve. On trying to prise away from the jewels and precious metals from Edmund’s magnificent shrine they commented that “it was exceedingly cumbrous to deface”. However, Edmund’s body was not within, had he been spirited away?

On November 4th, 1539 Abbot Reeve and forty-one monks signed the deed of surrender. He received an enormous pension of 500 marks and a house in Crown Street, now long gone. However, he never collected it, dying of a broken heart it has been said. He was buried in St Marys with an epitaph:

‘Here rest the sepultured bones of that man whom Bury formerly acknowledged Lord and Abbot, born at Melford in Suffolk, named John; his father and family Reeves. He was magnanimous, prudent, learned, benignant, and upright, loving the religion to which he was dedicated. Who, when he had seen the 31st year of the reign of Henry VIII on the 31st of March, sunk untimely to the grave.  Spare his soul, O gracious God! 1540. The abbey was sold to a John Eyer, then the townspeople took their revenge on the abbey, demolition swiftly followed! 

2020 marks the 1000 years since the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund, with a year of celebrations taking place in the town. Find out more with our 'Abbey of St Edmund 1000 Guide!' 

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