“Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law”: The Motto of a Town Steeped in History
The Martyr King:
Before England was united under a single king in 927 (Ethlestan of Wessex), it was divided into 7 kingdoms: Mercia, Northumberland, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex and Wessex. By 850AD these kingdoms were consolidated further into three larger kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex. Beodric’s Worth was in the kingdom of East Anglia ruled by the Angles. King Sigebert of East Anglia, who co-ruled alongside his brother Ecgric between 629-34 AD, is commonly considered to be the first king of England to receive a Christian education and baptism. The early Anglo-Saxons were pagan in their beliefs but during the 6th-century missionaries from Ireland and Rome gradually converted the rulers of Anglo-Saxon Britain to Christianity. Following on from his education, he founded a monastery in Bury St Edmunds in 630 AD, where it is presumed he subsequently spent his final years after abdicating to pursue his spiritual development. King Sigebert later became revered as a saint after he reluctantly left his religious retirement to take part in the battle against the Mercians in the early 640s (presumed). He reportedly refused to carry any weapons because of his monastic vows, and due to that he and Ergric were slain.
The Original Patron Saint of England:
Edmund became King of East Anglia in 855 AD before being martyred in 869 AD by the Danes. The Danes moved into Mercia and East Anglia after passing the winter seasons in York whereby they engaged in a fierce battle. It has been contested but the legend goes that Edmund was killed by being tied to a tree and shot with many arrows after refusing to renounce Christianity. He was heralded as a saint, turning Bury St Edmunds into a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. In 1020, King Cnut built a church for Edmund’s body – the beginnings of the abbey of St Edmunds – which would remain one of the strongest, richest abbeys in England until its dissolution in 1539.
The legend of St Edmund is famous in Bury St. Edmunds. After Edmund was killed by the arrows, he was decapitated and his head was thrown far from his body. As his supporters came looking for Edmund’s head to reunite it with its body in preparation for its burial and afterlife, they heard a wolf cry “here, here, here.” Following the cries, they found a wolf guarding Edmund’s head. When the body and the head were reunited, they fused back together to create a whole body. This is of course a legend, but even to this day, a wolf is the symbol of the town and many statues of wolves can be found.
Rebellions and Conflicts:
In 1044, King Edward the Confessor granted the St Benedictine abbey the right to rule over the entirety of West Suffolk. This was the trigger for a lot of the events that unfolded over the next centuries until its dissolution. The abbey could collect not only their tithe taxes and the heavy taxes which had to be paid for baptisms, inheritance of properties, marriages, and burials; but they also had the power to tax all the villages under their control. As such, the abbey grew to be one of the richest and most powerful in Europe at that time. It played a key role in the build-up to the signing of the Magna Carta when the king’s barons met on the grounds of the abbey and swore an oath to force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties (the precursor to the Magna Carter.) This is what the motto of the town: shrine of a king, cradle of the law, refers to. Whilst the power of the abbey allowed Bury St Edmunds to prosper as a site of pilgrimage and to keep a check on the King’s powers, it also created hostility between the abbey and the surrounding villages. The abbots were loathed by the townsfolk who believed that they were corrupt.
In 1327 after the deposition of Edward II and the new government of Edward III, riots broke out in several monastic towns. In Bury St Edmunds, this was a violent, ultimately unsuccessful rebellion drawn out over a period of nearly 5 years (1327-31). It started after agents in London encouraged the townsfolk to revolt against the abbey. Some historians believe that as many as 3000 people took part in attacking the abbey. They imprisoned several monks and destroyed the charters, papal bulls, and books which detailed how much people owed the abbey in tax. When the Abbot returned to London they demanded that he sign a new Charter of Liberties allowing the townsfolk to control their own taxation. The abbot signed it under duress but was advised by nobles at Westminster to declare it null and void. The power struggle between the abbot and the townsfolk continued over the following years. In 1331, the Abbot managed to secure royal permission for the Sheriff of Norfolk to quell the rebellion. Thirty cartloads of rebels were taken to trial in Norwich of which several were sent to the gallows and the rest were outlawed. The peace agreement saw the Abbot excusing the townspeople for their misgivings except for a handful of fines, and the charter was declared null and void. Whilst this riot was fought long and hard by the townsfolk, it didn’t achieve anything except showing that the abbey was not as strong as believed.
Another revolt took place in 1381. This is more commonly known as the peasant’s revolt and it is believed to have been triggered by the new poll tax brought in 1380, the prolonged impact of the black death of 1348 which gave the workers more leverage to demand liberties and the continued hostility to the abbey after the 1327 riot. There was a widespread refusal to pay the poll tax in 1381 so in March commissioners were sent to enforce payment. On 12 June 1381, John Wrawe, the leader of the revolt in Suffolk, beheaded the Chief of Justice before entering the abbey in Bury St Edmunds, wherein he killed the Prior and a monk. They ransacked the abbey’s offices and seized the charters. It was quelled quickly in comparison to the 1327 riot by the Bishop of Norwich, who led an army that captured John Wrawe. Without their leader, the rebellion fell apart. This revolt was the last uprising of note before the dissolution in 1539.
The abbey was dissolved in 1539 on orders of Henry VIII. As an important site of pilgrimage, the shrine to St Edmund was dismantled to show the King’s power and the whereabouts of St Edmund remain a mystery. The abbey buildings were sold off by the crown; the stones and statues were pillaged for buildings. Whilst it is often referred to as the reformation, the dissolution of the monasteries and abbeys lead to a loss of the history of the country and the start of a new way of life.
Written by Emma Le Poidevin
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