A History of Bury St Edmunds

By Tim Lambert

Anglo-Saxon Bury St Edmunds

Bury St Edmunds began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement called Bedric’s worth. Worth was a Saxon word meaning an enclosure such as a farm or hamlet surrounded by a stockade. In 630 Sigebert the king of East Anglia founded a monastery there.

In the 9th century, Edmund was king of East Anglia. He was martyred in 869. At the beginning of the 10th century, his remains were brought to the monastery for safekeeping. In the early 11th century, King Canute replaced the monastery with an abbey. The abbey soon became rich and powerful.

Bury St Edmunds in the Middle Ages

In the late 11th century Bury St Edmunds grew into an important town. This was partly due to Abbot Baldwin who encouraged craftsmen to come to the town and laid out new streets. By the 12th century, Bury St Edmunds probably had a population of about 4,000. That seems very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was quite a large town.

In the Middle Ages, many people came to Bury St Edmunds to visit the remains of St Edmund. (In those days it was common for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the shrines of saints). Naturally, the townspeople benefited from visitors spending money in the town.

In 1214 the English barons met at Bury St Edmunds. They swore an oath in the abbey to force the king to accept the Magna Carta. This gave rise to the town motto: ‘Shrine of a king, Cradle of the law’.

Medieval Bury St Edmunds was a wool-manufacturing town. In Bury wool was woven and fulled. That means the wool was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. There were also the same craftsmen found in any medieval town such as skinners, shoemakers, butchers, bakers, and brewers.

Bury St Edmunds was also an important market town. As well as the market from 1235 Bury had two annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted merchants from a wide area.

In the Middle Ages, Bury St Edmunds was controlled by the Abbot – a fact resented by the townspeople. Matters came to a head in 1327 when the people rebelled. However, the Abbot retained control of the town. The Abbey itself was destroyed by fire in 1465 but it was rebuilt.

The Norman Tower was built in the 12th century. It was also the bell tower of St James church. (Which is now the cathedral). The Abbey Gate was damaged during the rioting in 1327 but it was rebuilt later in the 14th century. Bury St Edmunds Guildhall has a 13th-century doorway. Other parts of the building date from the 15th century. Moyses Hall was built in 1180.

In the Middle Ages, the church provided the only hospitals. There were several in Bury St Edmunds where monks looked after the poor and the sick.

Like all towns, Bury St Edmunds was devastated by the Black Death of 1349 which may have killed half the town’s population. However, Bury soon recovered as there were always people from the countryside looking for jobs in towns.

Bury St Edmunds 1500-1800

In 1538 a man named John Leland who visited Bury St Edmunds said: ‘A man who saw the abbey would say it was a city, so many gates, so many towers, and a most stately church’. However, the abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1539. The buildings were then ‘cannibalized’ by the townspeople. The hospitals in Bury St Edmunds were also closed. The Reformation meant the end of the veneration of saint’s relics and pilgrimages.

On the other hand, Bury St Edmunds was now free of the Abbot’s control. In 1606 Bury was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From that time onward Bury St Edmunds had its own local government.

In 1550 King Edward VI founded a grammar school in Bury St Edmunds. However, During the reign of Mary (1553-1558), 17 Protestants were martyred in Bury. Then in 1608, Bury suffered a severe fire, which destroyed 160 houses. (It was supposedly due to a servant’s negligence). However, they were soon rebuilt.

Like all towns in those days, Bury St Edmunds suffered outbreaks of the plague. It struck in 1589 and 1637. Some idea of the sanitary conditions in Bury St Edmunds in those days can be gained from the fact that a by-law was passed in 1607 forbidding people to let pigs roam the streets!

In the 16th century, the cloth industry in Bury St Edmunds continued to flourish. However, it declined in the 17th century. By the early 17th century Bury probably had a population of about 5,000 but it was losing its importance. By the 18th century, it had dwindled to being a quiet market town.

In the 1720s Daniel Defoe said; ‘There is no manufacturing in this town, or very little, except spinning. The chief trade of this place depending upon the gentry who live there or near it’. i.e. trade depended on them spending money in the town.

Cupola House was built in 1693. It was built for a prosperous apothecary called Thomas Marco.

Bury St Edmunds continued to develop in the 18th century. The Unitarian Meeting House was built circa 1711-1712. Angel Corner was also built in the early 18th century. The building called the Athenaeum was built early in the 18th century as Assembly Rooms where people could play cards and attend balls. It became the Athenaeum in 1854. Meanwhile, Market Cross was built in 1780. It was designed by Robert Adam.

Bury St Edmunds in the 19th Century

In 1801 Bury St Edmunds had a population of 7,665. By 1900 it had a population of about 16,000. However, the population of Britain quadrupled during the same period from about 9 million to about 37 million. So relatively Bury St Edmunds declined. In the 19th century, Bury St Edmunds remained a market town. The only significant industry was brewing. In 1871 the fair of St Matthew, one of two in Bury St Edmunds, closed.

However, conditions in the town improved. In 1811 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men to pave, clean, and light the streets (with oil lamps).

Theatre Royal was built in 1819. The first modern hospital in Bury St Edmunds was built in 1826. A gasworks was built in Bury in 1834 to provide gas for lighting. Bury gained its first police force in 1836.

Bury St Edmunds was connected to Ipswich by railway in 1846 and to Cambridge in 1854. From the 1860s a piped water supply was created. A sewage works was built in 1885.

The Corn Exchange, where grain was bought and sold was built in 1862 and Bury St Edmunds Borough Museum opened in 1899.

The Church of St Edmund was built in 1837 and the Church of St John the Evangelist was built in 1840.

Bury St Edmunds in the 20th century

In 1903 a Martyrs Memorial was erected in Bury St Edmunds to the 17 Protestants who were martyred in the town during the reign of Queen Mary. In 1914 St James Church was made Bury St Edmunds Cathedral.

In 1916 7 people were killed in Bury St Edmunds during a zeppelin raid. n The first council houses in Bury were built in the 1920s. Priors estate was built in the 1930s. More council houses were built after 1945, some of them to replace demolished slums. Many private houses were also built such as Moreton Hall estate in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bury water tower was built in 1952 and a new Police Station was built in 1964. Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery opened in 1972. A new District Hospital opened in bury St Edmunds in 1974. Also in 1974, Bury St Edmunds lost its position as Suffolk’s county town.

A new Sports Centre was built in Bury St Edmunds in 1975. A new Fire Station was built in 1987. Also in 1987, a Tourist Information Centre opened. Manor House Museum opened in 1993.

A sugar beet factory was built in Bury St Edmunds in 1925. From the 1950s industrial estates were built in Bury St Edmunds to attract new industries. However, brewing is still a thriving industry in Bury St Edmunds.

Bury St Edmunds in the 21st century

The Arc Shopping Centre opened in 2009 and Abbeygate Sixth Form College opened in 2019. In 2023 the population of Bury St Edmunds was 35,000.