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The History of Bury St Edmunds

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Bury St Edmunds can be traced back to the original Anglo Saxon settlement of Bedric’s Worth (or Beodricesworth). Worth was a Saxon word, used to describe a settlement enclosed by a stockade. The settlement dates back to approximately 630 AD, when Sigebert, the King of the East Angles built a monastery there. It is believed that this was effectively the start of the town and that it would have been given its first charter, giving it the right to hold a market; which in turn gave the town a way of raising income through market tolls.

King Edmund was the ruler of East Anglia during the 9th century until he was martyred in 869 AD . His remains were brought to the monastery in the early tenth century in order to keep them safe. The shrine became associated with miraculous healing and this increased the popularity, and in turn, prosperity of the monastery. In the early 11th century, King Canute replaced the monastery with an abbey, which grew even more rich and powerful having been granted control over the town (now renamed St Edmund’s Bury). The town is considered to have played a significant role in the lead up to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. In 1214 the barons are believed to have met at the Abbey in order to swear to make King John sign the Charter of Liberties, which is known to have greatly influenced the Magna Carta. In the 14th century the town was still ruled by the Abbot and it was the he who received the market tolls from the annual markets. This was not popular with the local townsfolk and caused a degree of strife which came to a head in the form of a full scale rebellion in 1327. The rebellion did not succeed, however, in wresting the control of the town from the Abbot.

The Abbey itself was burned down in the 15th century but rebuilt again soon after. St Mary’s Church was also built in the 15th century and it is there that Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII is buried. The cathedral church of St James was built in the 16th century, utilising the town’s original Norman keep for its tower. The Abbot’s control over Bury St Edmund’s was ended when Henry VIII closed the Abbey in 1539. This led to buildings being robbed for relics and raw materials by the locals. The control of the town now passed into the hands of the town’s own local government and the takeover was officially complete following the granting of a new charter in 1606. Prior to this new charter King Edward VI had opened a grammar school in Bury St Edmunds in 1550. Shortly after this (during Queen Mary ’s reign) 11 heretics were burnt in Bury St Edmunds. Bury St Edmunds was also the scene of many notable witch hunts and trials between 1599 and 1694. Two of the most notable involved self proclaimed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, which led to 18 ‘witches’ being hanged. The latter, in 1662, was conducted by Sir Matthew Hale (later to become Lord Chief of Justice of England) and led to the hanging of two elderly widows for supposed witchcraft.

Bury St Edmunds thrived on the back of the cloth trade throughout the 16th century, but the town suffered as the industry began to decline during the 17th century. The town was also hit by plague, like most English towns, at this time. Sanitary conditions were generally poor and there were many outbreaks of disease other than the plague. Measures such as the banning of pigs from being allowed to roam the
streets were introduced in the early 17th century in order to try to improve the unsanitary conditions in the town. By the beginning of the 18th century, the town had become a quiet market town, retaining little of its former status. In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe remarked that the town relied very much on the spending habits of the local gentry rather than on manufacturing, which was tending to grow
in other towns in England.

In 1835, following the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act by Parliament, the old self perpetuating Corporation which ran the town and markets was replaced by an elected body. Unfortunately, by the terms of the lease, they did not actually gain control of the markets until 1849. Today Bury St Edmunds is thriving as a historic market town with a population of about 35,000. It has been home to some well
known faces from the world of radio and television, including John Le Mesurier and Bob Hoskins . Radio 1 DJ and modern music legend John Peel was born nearby in Great Finborough, his funeral was held at the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds in 2004.

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