The news that St Edmundsbury Borough Council and Forest Heath District Council are to formally merge to form a new West Suffolk Council may seem unimportant to many Bury St Edmunds residents. The two councils have, after all, been working together to pool their resources for some years. It is indeed the case that the merger will probably have little or no impact on services or people’s day-to-day lives. However, difficulties are thrown up by the fact that the present St Edmundsbury Borough Council (which since 1972 has covered a much larger area than just the town of Bury St Edmunds itself) is the legal successor to the Corporation of Bury St Edmunds first established by royal charter in 1606. If St Edmundsbury Borough Council ceases to exist, the question arises whether Bury St Edmunds will cease to be a borough. If Bury does lose this status, this is a significant symbolic blow to a town that was once a county town and, in the Middle Ages, held a status little different from a sovereign principality.
Borough status, like city status, is granted by royal charter (a process governed by the Privy Council). Bury St Edmunds has received many royal charters since 1606, each recognising the town as a borough and changing the rules of election or the territory of the borough. However, the original charter of 1606 was a hard-fought document which wrested control of the town from a number of competing groups who attempted to fill the vacuum left behind by the dissolution of the Abbey. In the Middle Ages, Bury had no borough status and the town was, in effect, a personal possession of the Abbey’s Sacrist to do with much as he pleased. The conflicts between the townsfolk and the abbot are legendary, and were some of the bitterest in medieval England (see my book on the Abbey for an account of this subject). After the dissolution in 1539, the Candlemas Guild initially stepped into the breach and governed the town but it was dissolved in turn in 1548, leaving the Guildhall Feoffees and the governors of the Grammar School, re-established in 1550, to run the town between them.
However, since control of the Liberty of St Edmund (West Suffolk) had fallen to its hereditary stewards, the Bacon family of Redgrave, there was some doubt about who had ultimate authority over the town. In the era of the Abbey the town and liberty had separate hereditary stewards, but the hereditary stewardship of the town fell into abeyance, leaving the Bacons claiming the right to exercise the old powers of the Abbot (or at least those not directly arrogated by the Crown). The townsfolk thus found themselves in much the same position as they had been under the abbots – powerless, forbidden from organising, and at the mercy of hereditary stewards who were simply acting as secular versions of the old abbots. The townsfolk repeatedly sued the Bacons and petitioned the Crown until James I eventually granted the charter in 1606. By making Bury a borough, the charter also made it a parliamentary seat, meaning that Bury gained parliamentary representation for the first time since 1539 (the abbots used to represent Bury in the House of Lords); the charter also stipulated the extent of the franchise (who was allowed to vote). Subsequent charters were similarly bitterly contested – the charter of 1684 gave the Crown the right to directly appoint a mayor and aldermen, who were the only people allowed to vote in the borough (guaranteeing the Crown control of Bury as a parliamentary seat!), and in 1688 a revolt by the Corporation forced James II to rescind the 1684 charter and reinstate an earlier document of 1661.
For the citizens of Bury St Edmunds, having a mayor was of immense symbolic importance. Under the abbots, the townsfolk had only been allowed to elect an ‘alderman’ who was denied the title of mayor and acted as a sort of ambassador on their behalf to the Sacrist, but had no power whatsoever. It has often been observed that the intensity of the medieval conflict between the abbot and townsfolk meant that the dissolution was treated by the townsfolk as a victory, and this may be true; certainly, Bury has a deep civic tradition that is rooted in that dark time when the monks and townsfolk were at each other’s throats. The idea that the position and title of Mayor of St Edmundsbury might be abolished as the result of the creation of a West Suffolk Council is disturbing, as is the possibility that the Borough will lose its royal charter. The right of Bury St Edmunds to a mayor and a charter are ancient and were not won easily; indeed, blood was spilled to gain these rights.
I am sure that the merger of West Suffolk’s two district councils makes a great deal of administrative sense, but I wonder if there is any way in which Bury St Edmunds can retain its borough status and its mayor; a ‘Mayor of West Suffolk’ would hardly be the same, and ‘West Suffolk’ (formerly a county) can hardly be a borough. I would strongly urge the MP for Bury St Edmunds, Jo Churchill, to ask the government to permit the Borough of St Edmundsbury to retain a royal charter – not least because it is because of the original charter of 1606 that Bury St Edmunds gained parliamentary representation in the first place.