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A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256

A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256: Samson of Tottington to Edmund of Walpole

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 398
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  • Book Info
    A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256
    Book Description:

    St Edmund's Abbey was one of the most highly privileged and wealthiest religious houses in medieval England, one closely involved with the central government; its history is an integral part of English history. This book (the first of two volumes) offers a magisterial and comprehensive account of the Abbey during the thirteenth century, based primarily on evidence in the abbey's records (over 40 registers survive). The careers of the abbots, beginning with the great Samson, provide the chronological structure; separate chapters study various aspects of their rule, such as their relations with the convent, the abbey's internal and external administration and its relations with its tenants and neighbours, with the king and the central government. Chapters are also devoted to the monks' religious, cultural and intellectual life, to their writings, book collection and archives. Appendices focus on the mid-thirteenth century accounts which give a unique and detailed picture of the organisation and economy of St Edmunds' estates in West Suffolk, and on the abbey's watermills and windmills. Professor ANTONIA GRANSDEN is former Reader at the University of Nottingham.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-555-0
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of plates
    (pp. x-x)
  4. List of figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Antonia Gransden
  6. Editorial Note
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  7. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xix-xx)
  8. Maps and plans (figures 1–9)
    (pp. xxi-xxx)
  9. Part I. SAMSON OF TOTTINGTON, ABBOT 1182–1211

    • Introductory
      (pp. 1-4)

      This, the first of two volumes which will cover altogether the years from 1182 to 1256, is longer than the second, despite the fact that it concerns only one abbot, Samson, and his rule, while the second concerns his four successors and their abbacies which cover in total forty-four years. The main reason for this imbalance is that for Samson there is an abundance of evidence, much of it contemporary, but his four successors are comparatively poorly served in that respect. Above all, for Samson there is the superlative work of Jocelin of Brackland. Few medieval abbots were favoured with...

    • 1 Samson’s Biographer, Jocelin of Brackland (de Brakelond), and his work
      (pp. 5-11)

      Jocelin’s toponymic indicates that he was a native of Long Brackland Street or Short Brackland Street in Bury St Edmunds.¹ He reveals in the chronicle that he entered St Edmund’s abbey in 1173, when Hugh I was abbot (1157–80), and that Samson was his master during his novitiate.² Later he became the prior’s chaplain and within four months of Samson’s succession to the abbacy he was appointed his chaplain.³ He held that office for six years, acting as Samson’s secretary,⁴ ‘noting many things and storing them in [his] memory’.⁵ After 1188 he seems to have had no official position...

    • 2 Samson’s Early Life and Career
      (pp. 12-16)

      Samson was born in 1135 at Tottington in Norfolk¹ (about nine miles northeast of Thetford). One night he dreamt that he was standing before the gates of the cemetery of St Edmund’s abbey and the devil tried to seize him, but he was saved by St Edmund himself who held him in his arms. Therefore, Samson’s mother took him to visit St Edmund’s shrine. He was nine years old at the time.² It would seem that Samson’s regard for St Edmund and the abbey originated with this episode. His early education was as a poor clerk in the school of...

    • 3 Samson’s Election to the Abbacy
      (pp. 17-22)

      Late in January or early in February, 1182, Henry II wrote ordering Prior Robert and twelve monks, who were to be unanimously chosen by the monks, to appear before him to elect an abbot. The convent accordingly chose twelve monks.¹ Samson was one of them. These twelve, together with the prior, Robert, were to act as electors, but they knew that the king had control over the appointment: since the abbot, like the head of any great religious house, was a tenant-in-chief, the king could withhold temporalities – the abbot’s barony.² The monks had to reconcile royal power with the...

    • 4 The Early Years of Samson’s Abbacy and Reform of Estate Management
      (pp. 23-31)

      Samson inherited a difficult situation from Abbot Hugh. Jocelin, writing of Hugh in his old age, asserts that although the Rule of St Benedict was observed and discipline kept,¹ the abbey’s administration was in a bad state and the abbey seriously in debt. He writes:

      Abbot Hugh had grown old and his eyes dim. He was a pious, kindly man, a strict monk and good, but in worldly affairs he was neither good nor prudent. He trusted those about him too much, believed them too readily, always relying on their advice rather than on his own judgement.²

      Hugh did not...

    • 5 Conflict with the Convent
      (pp. 32-43)

      Under the Rule of St Benedict an abbot’s power is absolute. Decision-making lies with him and the monks must obey his commands, however unreasonable, without question and with humility.¹ Nevertheless, the Rule has general injunctions for the abbot’s good behaviour: he must always be mindful of the words of St Paul: ‘you have received the spirit of the adoption of sons by which we cry Abba, father’.² And the abbot should not harass the flock committed to him, nor exercise his power in an arbitrary, unjust way; he should always remember that he must render account to God for all...

    • 6 Relations with the Town of Bury St Edmunds
      (pp. 44-50)

      Jocelin’s account of the convent’s confrontation with Samson in 1202 is probably selective.¹ The monks may well have also complained about other things about which Jocelin is silent. But the complaints which he does mention as made on that occasion all concern the administration of the town. They are matters which figure earlier in his narrative as subjects of dispute and which also occupy clauses in the Composition.² Obviously, the town was a major cause of dispute between Samson and the convent.

      The town of Bury St Edmunds comprised two elements: first the highly privileged Liberty of thebanleucawhere...

    • 7 Samson and Secular Law
      (pp. 51-55)

      On his election to the abbacy Samson took steps to remedy his lack of the legal knowledge necessary in his new office for the protection of St Edmunds’ liberties and possessions. He appointed men learned in secular law to advise and instruct him – Jocelin refers to them as his ‘private counsellors’¹ – and studied appropriate legal texts. Thus, he soon became a formidable party in the law courts and was regarded as a wise judge.² At some stage he was appointed a royal justice in eyre (but is known to have served only once, that was on a circuit...

    • 8 Samson and the Knights of St Edmund
      (pp. 56-59)

      One of Samson’s problems was his relationship with the abbey’s military tenants. He had to ensure that they fulfilled their obligations to him and to the king, and that their rights were protected against royal encroachment. The abbot of St Edmunds owed the service of forty knights. But he, like other tenants-in-chief, had enfeoffed knights in excess of his quota, in his case twelve extra. The situation is made clear by the list of knights’ fees returned by the abbey to the Exchequer in 1166.¹ The return was in response to the questionnaire sent by Henry II to his tenants-in-chief....

    • 9 Relations with the Angevin Kings
      (pp. 60-67)

      Samson’s successful defence of his right as a tenant-in-chief of the crown to the wardship of the infant heiress of one of his military tenants was described above. Similarly, he was constantly on his guard against encroachment by the Angevin kings on St Edmunds’ liberties and possessions. When necessary, he acted quickly to protect them. For example, in 1186 or 1187 the royal justices in eyre fined the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk for ‘a certain offence’ committed within their boundaries: Norfolk was to pay 50 marks and Suffolk 30 marks, and St Edmunds was to pay part of the...

    • 10 Samson and the Papacy
      (pp. 68-82)

      Jocelin writes:

      Seven months had not passed since [Samson’s] election when, lo and behold! letters of the pope [Lucius III] were brought to him, appointing him a judge delegate for the hearing of cases, a task for which he had neither the knowledge nor the experience. … Thereupon, he called to himself two clerks learned in [canon] law to be his associates and used their advice in ecclesiastical matters, and he studied the decrees and decretals whenever he had time. Thus, by studying books and hearing cases, he soon became a prudent judge, who proceeded in court according to the...

    • 11 Samson as a Builder
      (pp. 83-93)

      The repair of derelict buildings and the construction of new ones under Samson have been mentioned above,¹ but his fame as a builder rests primarily on the many building works within the abbey precincts, both ecclesiastical and domestic, which his enthusiasm initiated and his energy pursued. However, of all his projects the completion of the abbey church was paramount in his mind and his overriding ambition was to have the church consecrated. Jocelin ends a passage summarising Samson’s merits with these words:

      Samson performed these and similar deeds worthy of eternal record and renown, but he himself said that he...

    • 12 Religious and Intellectual Life under Samson
      (pp. 94-144)

      The shrine of St Edmund, the centre of the martyr’s cult and the magnet which drew the pilgrims, was very splendid. It lay behind the high altar and, like all great shrines, consisted of two main parts, the feretory containing the saint’s coffin and a base. The feretory was of the normal kind, a rectangular wooden box, a little larger than the coffin, with a gable roof like that of a house. It was covered with silver plates and Samson gave a golden crest to surmount the gable ridge, and Robert of Graveley gave a canopy, with pictures painted on...

    • 13 Samson’s Death and Burial
      (pp. 145-148)

      Abbot Samson died at St Edmunds on 30 December 1211.¹ As England was still under an interdict, when no one could be buried in hallowed ground, he was buried in the cloister garth. The interdict was lifted on 2 July 1214 and the prior and some of the senior monks wanted to move Samson’s body for re-burial in the abbey church, ‘for greater honour’. But at this time the monks were embroiled in a bitter controversy over the election to the abbacy of Hugh of Northwold. His chief opponent was the sacrist, Robert of Graveley, who himself aspired to be...

  10. Part II. THE ABBEY 1212–1256

    • Introductory
      (pp. 149-150)

      A vacancy of nearly three and a half years followed Samson’s death on 30 December 1211, for reasons to be discussed below. In the period which followed until 1256 four abbots ruled in succession, Hugh of Northwold (that is Hugh II, 1213–29); Richard of the Isle (de Insula, de l’Isle, 1229–33); Henry of Rushbrooke (1233–48); and Edmund of Walpole (1248–56). The first three were able men – indeed Hugh of Northwold and Richard of the Isle were of outstanding ability, but with regard to Edmund of Walpole it is hard to form an opinion. Little is...

    • 14 The vacancy, 1211–1215, and election of Hugh of Northwold
      (pp. 151-164)

      Abbot Samson died on 30 December 1211, and Hugh of Northwold, the subcellarer, was elected abbot on 7 August 1213,¹ but did not receive papal confirmation until 10 March 1215.² He was blessed by the bishop of Rochester, Benedict of Sawston, on 19 May, 1215,³ and eventually King John confirmed the election on 10 June.⁴ The reason for the long interval between Samson’s death and the abbatial election was in the first instance the papal interdict which was pronounced in England on 23 March 1208 and lasted for over six years. It was not finally lifted until 2 July 1214...

    • 15 The Abbots 1215–1256
      (pp. 165-195)

      Hugh was a native of Northwold in Norfolk, which lay about six and a half miles from Thetford on the road to King’s Lynn. It was under the jurisdiction and patronage of St Etheldreda’s, that is, of Ely cathedral. People with the toponym ‘of Northwold’ first appear at St Edmunds’ in thirteenth-century records and in a list of c. 1300 a Sir Robert of Northwold appears among St Edmunds’ military tenants.¹ Hugh’s father, Peter of Northwold, and mother Emma appear in the Book of Benefactors: their respective anniversaries were celebrated with a toll of the bells (‘simplici sonitu’) and masses...

    • 16 Observance of the Rule of St Benedict
      (pp. 196-217)

      Observance of the Rule at St Edmunds in the thirteenth century was much the same as that in nearly all other great Benedictine houses at that period. It was moderately lax. The monks lived comfortably but not luxuriously and, so far as we know, gave rise to no scandals. In effect, they enjoyed those relaxations of the Rule which had modified strict observance in previous centuries. To some extent these relaxations were justifiable. St Benedict had intended the Rule to prescribe a monastic life suitable for an ordinary man with a religious vocation, not for one desiring or perhaps even...

    • 17 Learning
      (pp. 218-220)

      The problem about studying learning and books at St Edmunds for the period from 1215 to 1257 is the scarcity of datable evidence. The general impression is that in an undistinguished way an élite among the monks continued the tradition of learning established in the twelfth century and fostered under Abbot Samson. Three, if not five, of the Masters active in the convent at the time of Hugh’s election were still alive during his abbacy,¹ and Abbot Edmund of Walpole was himself a Master of canon law.² There were no doubt other magistral monks in the period from 1215 to...

    • 18 Books
      (pp. 221-228)

      Whether or not the first continuator of theDe dedicationehad studied at the university is impossible to say but he was certainly a good scholar. An idea of the intellectual level achieved by some of the monks of St Edmunds in this period could to some extent be measured if we knew more about their acquisition of books. Unfortunately, sound evidence about book acquisition is scarce. The problem is to be certain when most of the extant thirteenth-century books were added to the monks’ collection. The same is true of some of those earlier ones which have not been...

    • 19 Buildings
      (pp. 229-235)

      Of the seven monks who successively held the office of sacrist in the period 1215–57, only the second, Richard of Newport, appears among those benefactors whose acts and merits were recorded in the (now lost) martyrology and in the kitchener’s register. He must have been a monk of some seniority already in 1213, since at that time he was subsacrist and took a leading part in opposition to the election of Hugh of Northwold to the abbacy.¹ He was appointed sacrist in 1220 when his predecessor in that office, Richard of the Isle, became prior,² and remained sacrist for...

    • 20 St Edmunds’ Liberties and the Crown
      (pp. 236-244)

      The Liberty of St Edmunds, which comprised both the Liberty of the eight and a half hundreds and the even more highly privileged Liberty of thebanleuca,² was well-established before the Norman Conquest and had been confirmed by the Anglo-Norman kings and their successors. St Edmunds’ claim to the Liberty was based primarily on the grants by Edward the Confessor³ but these were expressed in general terms, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries frequent definition and elaboration were necessary in order to accommodate new developments in royal government. For instance, there was the problem of that characteristic feature of...

    • 21 Henry III and the cult of St Edmund
      (pp. 245-248)

      Henry III’s veneration for St Edmund seems to have been surpassed only by his veneration for another sainted Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, patron saint of Westminster Abbey. Henry’s devotion to St Edmund is well attested. He named his second son, Edmund (‘Crouchback’), after him. On 18 January 1245, two days after Edmund’s birth, Henry wrote to Abbot Henry of Rushbrooke ordering him to tell the monks that his son had been named after ‘the glorious king and martyr’, their patron saint.¹ And in 1253 he sent 12oboli de muscaand 20 measures of wax worth £40 for the...


    • Appendix I An Inventory of Edmund of Walpole’s Table-linen and Table-ware, date 20 August, 1253
      (pp. 249-249)
    • Appendix II The Story of Edward the Confessor’s Gift of Mildenhall
      (pp. 250-251)
    • Appendix III The Abbey’s Economy in the mid-Thirteenth Century: the accounts in BL MS Harley 645 and related documents
      (pp. 252-287)
    • Appendix IV St Edmunds’ Watermills and Windmills
      (pp. 288-316)
  12. Abbreviations, and Select Bibliography with Shortened Titles
    (pp. 317-332)
  13. Index
    (pp. 333-354)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 355-357)