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I have recently signed a contract with the Lasse Press to publish my book The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery in September 2016. This will be the first book to cover the entire history of one of England’s greatest medieval Abbeys from foundation to dissolution, as well as exploring the Abbey’s ongoing local and national legacy and the stories of the men and women who uncovered the Abbey’s history and archaeology in subsequent centuries.
The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was the fifth largest Benedictine Abbey in England and the largest in East Anglia by far. According to tradition, the Abbey was founded in 1020 by King Cnut to replace a college of secular priests at the Church of St Mary in Beodricsworth, who were responsible for caring for the incorrupt body of the martyr king of East Anglia, St Edmund. Beodricsworth soon became known as Bury St Edmunds, and under Abbot Baldwin (ruled 1065-97) the Benedictine Abbey rose to national prominence, rivalled only by Westminster and St Albans. Baldwin’s minster, begun in around 1081 and not completed until the reign of Abbot Samson (1182-1211) was possibly the largest completed church in the world at the time of the Abbey’s dissolution in 1539. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was the site of spectacular royal pilgrimages, parliaments and great historical events, such as the oath sworn by the barons in 1214 to compel King John to maintain liberties granted in Henry I’s coronation charter – the prelude to Magna Carta. The Abbey was ruled by the brilliant physician Baldwin, the devout patron of the arts Anselm of St Saba, and shrewd political operators like Samson of Tottington and Hugh of Northwold – not to mention less successful Abbots like Richard of Draughton, who was shaved by rebels and carried off in a sack to Brabant!
The Abbey’s story is a colourful one of pride, rebellion, intrigue and murder, played out against the backdrop of the most spectacular building of Romanesque Europe. Although the Abbey came to an end when John Reeve, the last Abbot, surrendered it to Henry VIII’s commissioners on 4 November 1539, the Abbey’s influence continued. The Steward of the Liberty of St Edmund continued to control, as he had before the Reformation, the eight-and-half hundreds of West Suffolk granted to the Abbey by Edward the Confessor in 1043, and Bury St Edmunds remained a peculiar judicial and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, separate from the rest of Suffolk, right down to the nineteenth century. It was only in 1934 that the boundary of the town established in a charter of 945 was expanded, and only in 1974 did the County of West Suffolk cease to exist. By then, Bury’s glorious past as Suffolk’s ecclesiastical capital had already ensured, in 1914, that the Cathedral for the new Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was established in the town. Furthermore, the idea of the Abbey continued to live among English Benedictine monks, and in 1615 a successor monastery, St Edmund’s, was founded in Paris and survives to this day at Woolhampton, near Reading.
The discovery of the Abbey’s history was a slow process, partly because the Abbey buildings were systematically destroyed after the dissolution and are in a poor state in comparison with other monastic ruins. Historical interest really began with the seventeenth-century antiquary John Battely (1647-1708), whose partial history of the Abbey (in Latin) was published in 1745. Chance discoveries in the Abbey ruins in the eighteenth century increased interest, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the site was well known to antiquaries. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the great Bury antiquary M. R. James (better known these days for his ghost stories) discovered new documents that shed light on the interior decoration of the Abbey Church and the composition of the monastic library. James revealed the true magnificence of St Edmund’s Minster and demonstrated that the Abbey had the second best library in late medieval England, exceeded only by that of Oxford University. Since then there has been much historical work on the Abbey, culminating in a two-volume history of the period 1182-1301 by Antonia Gransden, published between 2009 and 2015.
However, in spite of the historical and archaeological interest in the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds over the last three centuries, no-one has hitherto drawn together all of the scholarship into a single account of the entire period 1020-1539. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery aims to do just that, presenting a comprehensive and scholarly account of the Abbey’s history that will be accessible to the non-specialist and will introduce the rich possibilities of research still offered by the Abbey which housed the body of the patron saint of the English people.