Earlier today The Ipswich Star reported on an ongoing debate about whether Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds should be Suffolk’s county town. Ipswich has, of course, been the official county town since 1974, when the two counties of East Suffolk and West Suffolk (with its county town at Bury) were merged. However, the term ‘county’ has more than one meaning in English local government. Although these days it is generally taken to mean the area governed by a county council, it can also refer to the ‘ceremonial county’ represented by the Lord Lieutenant, or a ‘historic county’ covering a jurisdictionally-obsolete but culturally significant territory. ‘County’ is a word of Norman French origin derived from comté, meaning an area under the rule of a count; when the Normans conquered England they regarded the title of ealdorman (earl) as equivalent to count and therefore called the shires (after whom the ealdormen took their titles) as counties – although the term comté was used on the Continent for much larger entities such as the ‘County of Flanders’.
There are a number of ways to settle the question of whether or not Bury St Edmunds is or should be a county town. Clearly, the town has not been the seat of a county council since 1974, but to define a county (and a county town) in these terms would be highly eccentric, given that county councils were a late Victorian innovation. Ipswich is indisputably the largest town in Suffolk, but there are plenty of instances in which a small town serves as a county town in preference to much larger neighbours – Hertford for Hertfordshire and Buckingham for Buckinghamshire, for example. County towns are often (but not always) cathedral cities, but the Church of England tried to please both East and West Suffolk in 1914 by siting the cathedral of the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich in Bury St Edmunds and the bishop in Ipswich. Since the cathedral city is the seat of the bishop, it is open to debate whether the seat is the formal cathedra in St Edmundsbury Cathedral or the fact that the bishop actually lives and works in Ipswich.
One way to resolve the dispute is to return to the original Anglo-Saxon and Norman understanding of a shire/county as the area ruled over, or associated with the lands of, an ealdorman/earl. The difficulty here is that Suffolk and Norfolk are not shire names. They simply denote the territories of the ‘South Folk’ and ‘North Folk’ of the old Kingdom of East Anglia – unimaginative names that make it difficult to establish exactly when Suffolk and Norfolk would have been regarded as shires. By the eleventh century Suffolk was already divided into two distinct parts; the so-called ‘Geldable Lands’ under the jurisdiction of the Shire Reeve (Sheriff) of Norfolk and Suffolk (East Suffolk) and the eight-and-half hundreds that belonged to Edward the Confessor’s mother Emma (West Suffolk). These eight-and-a-half hundreds seem to have formed a distinct entity which may have pre-dated Emma’s ownership. In any case, in 1043 Edward gave this territory to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds as the Liberty of St Edmund.
It is difficult to argue that the medieval Liberty of St Edmund was anything other than a county in its own right. It had its own courts and the Abbots of Bury controlled it completely. The Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk (and even the bishop of Norwich) had no jurisdiction there whatsoever. Indeed, the Liberty was almost a miniature ecclesiastical statelet, with its own mint, legislature (the Chapter), courts and army (the Knights of St Edmund). The dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 did not, oddly enough, abolish the Liberty of St Edmund at all. The Liberty became the property of the Crown but remained disconnected from the rest of Suffolk, and was sold to the Bacon family as hereditary Stewards of the Liberty of St Edmund (sometimes called the Franchise of Bury). The title later passed to the Hervey family and the present Marquess of Bristol is the current Steward. The first major challenge to the Bacon family’s rule was the incorporation of Bury St Edmunds in 1606, giving the town a mayor and council for the first time, but the Bacons continued to claim their rights. It is difficult to give a date at which the Liberty of St Edmund ceased to have any legal existence; it just fizzled out over the centuries, although Bury retained its independent court system and independence from the diocese of Norwich until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The establishment of the county of West Suffolk in 1974 was really the re-establishment of an ancient territory. Although the eight-and-a-half hundreds had never been referred to historically as a county they were one in practice – rather like the Soke of Peterborough which, although not called a county, was always like one. When Bury ceased to be a county town in 1974 it was not just being robbed of a temporary status but of an ancient customary right, and the progressive divestment of other privileges (such as Bury’s courts) and their transfer to Ipswich has felt like an insult to many inhabitants. Ipswich is a town of huge historical importance, but it was never a centre of European pilgrimage as Bury was. To claim that Bury should be the county town of Suffolk is, perhaps, fanciful – the Abbots never exercised jurisdiction over all of East Suffolk (although they did rule the town of Southwold) – but to deny Bury the status of a county town is without doubt an historical injustice. Perhaps Suffolk County Council can take its inspiration from the Church of England and find a way to split the honour of being Suffolk’s county town between the two contenders?