A Millennium of Justice in Bury St Edmunds

Bury Magistrates Court
Bury St Edmunds Magistrates’ Court © The Bury Free Press

A few weeks ago the Government announced that the Crown Court in Bury St Edmunds, which also houses the Magistrates’ and Family Courts, will close at some point later this year. The Crown Court has not been used for some time, but retained the status. The closure of Bury’s own court brings to an end at least a thousand years of continuous administration of justice in the town, so it seems a good time to take a historical look at Bury’s judicial history.

Thingoe Hill

Thingoe Hill is located to the northwest of the old boundary of the town, the banleuca. The hill has been cut in two by the A14 since the 1970s, and is located to the west of Fornham Road. The name derives from Old English thing how, ‘thing’ meaning a parliamentary assembly and ‘how’ meaning a hill. It is possible that Thingoe Hill pre-dates the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. One of the hundreds of Suffolk, which date back to the tenth century, is named after the hill, and Anglo-Saxon local assemblies took place at sites like Thingoe Hill even in pre-Christian times. Sadly, it seems that no excavation of the area took place when a road was run through the middle of it.

The Abbot’s Hall of Pleas

The traditional date for the foundation of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds is 1020. By that date, the banleuca already existed as an area around the town of Beodricesworth marked by four crosses; the base of one of those crosses, Heyecross, can still be seen on Risbygate Street outside West Suffolk College. In 1043 King Edward the Confessor granted the eight-and-a-half hundreds of West Suffolk to the Abbey, meaning that the Abbots thereafter exercised royal jurisdiction over the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds (anything inside the banleuca) and a large degree of influence over the Liberty of St Edmund (the entirety of West Suffolk). Anyone who committed a crime inside the banleuca was exempt from the jurisdiction of any ordinary court but was subject to the Abbot, and it is likely that in the eleventh century trials were carried out in the presence of the Abbot himself in the Hall of Pleas (part of the Abbey precincts).

Shire House Heath

Shire House Heath was an area of heathland that originally extended from the North Gate of the town (close to today’s Northgate Roundabout) to Fornham All Saints. The Heath included Thingoe Hill, but it was so-called because of another small hill called Hen How on which a small Shire Hall was built. As far as I am aware, the exact location of Hen How has not been determined with certainty, but it was the centre of the administration of justice in the ‘little shire’ of the Liberty of St Edmund. The Abbot had the right to act as Sheriff within the Liberty, meaning that he (or rather his officials) presented the accused for trial; he also had the right to appoint judges to serve as Justices of the Liberty of St Edmund. These were royal justices who also served on other circuits, and the first record of one of them hearing a case at the Shire House comes from 1187. However, the Abbots would not allow the justices to hold trials within the banleuca because they were royal justices, and the Abbots would not allow anyone acting on royal authority to enter the banleuca since they reserved this right for themselves. Furthermore, the status of the citizens of the banleuca was different from those who lived outside it, and the banleuca was not itself part of the Liberty of St Edmund, so the Abbots considered that the justices had no right to hold their court in Bury itself.

The Shire Hall

One of the few gains made by the people of Bury St Edmunds as a result of the dissolution in 1539 was the removal of the Abbot’s ban on assizes for the Liberty of St Edmund taking place in the town. Accordingly, trials moved into the Chapel of St Margaret, on the south side of the Great Churchyard, which was located just to the west of the present Shire Hall between it and St Mary’s Church. It would seem that St Margaret’s, or a surviving part of it, was still in use as a Shire Hall as late as 1821, but it must have been pulled down to make way for the present building in the mid-nineteenth century. The relationship between the two jurisdictions – the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds and the Liberty of St Edmund – was complex, because Bury St Edmunds was not located in the jurisdiction of the Shire Hall that was in Bury St Edmunds, yet the court of the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds probably used the same building. The issue came to a head in 1778 when there was doubt about a man accused of murder who lived within the banleuca in terms of whose jurisdiction he came under. It seems unlikely that a court specific to the town of Bury St Edmunds met often (or ever) after the dissolution, but the two courts were not formally amalgamated until 1835.

The end of judicial independence

Remarkably, the Liberty of St Edmund continued to have its own justices until 1873. Thereafter, the Shire Hall in Bury St Edmunds became a Crown Court whose judges were royal justices like any others. However, Bury remained an assize town because in 1874 it formally became the county town of West Suffolk (whose boundaries were the same as the old Liberty of St Edmund anyway). In 1974 Bury was stripped of this status and the County of West Suffolk abolished, but the Crown Court remained. This year, the last vestige of Bury’s ancient judicial independence will finally disappear, as Ipswich becomes the sole location from which justice is administered in Suffolk. To say that this marks the end of an era would be something of an understatement.

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