The history of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, altho veiled in much legendary and mythical lore, tells, nevertheless, in its actual history of the progress of civilization and of the enlightenment of the human mind. Sigberct, King of the East Angles, is said to have founded the flrst monastery at Beodericsworth (a town known to the Romans, ancient Britains, Saxons, and Danes), and to have subsequently laid aside his royal dignity by joining the brotherhood which he had established. Following his example of religious devotion, Edmund, last King of the Angles, sacrificed not only his crown but his life in defense of the Christian faith, for he was beheaded by the Danes at Eglesdene in 870. . . .
His head was cast into a forest, and, as the story goes, was miraculously discovered and found to be guarded by a wolf. It was then buried with the body at the village of Hoxne, where it remained until 903. In this year, “the precious, undefiled, uncorrupted body of the glorious king and martyr” was translated to the care of the secular priests at Beodericsworth, since when the town has been called St. Edmundsbury, in memory of the sainted monarch. Other wonderful traditions are associated with the shrine of St. Edmund. Sweyn, the violent Danish king, coming in hot pursuit of a woman who had claimed sanctuary, was miraculously killed by an imaginary spear which came out of the shrine when he was about to seize the woman who was clinging to its side. Bishop Herfastus, too, was struck blind, when on a visit to the abbot, in the attempt to establish his new see in the monastical demesne, and afterward miraculously healed. For centuries the highest in the land brought gifts and laid them before the venerated shrine.
Canute was the actual founder of the monastery proper, for in the eleventh century he brought over Benedictine monks from Hulm, granting them a charter and many benefactions. The monastery yearly became more prosperous, and, with the exception of Glastonbury, exceeded in magnificence and privileges all other ecclestiastical establishments in the country. In the height of its glory it must have been a most beautiful and dignified structure. Leland writes :
“A monastery more noble, whether one considers the endowments, largeness, or unparalleled magnificence, the sun never saw. One might think the monastery alone a city : it has three grand gates for entrances, some whereof are brass, many towers, high walls, and a church than which nothing can be more magnificent.”
The immense minster, with its lofty western and central towers, rose above the monastic buildings, which were enclosed by a wall. To the north was a great cloister, with the various conventual offices, to the southwest lay the cemetery and church of St. Mary, while immediately before the west front of the church stood the Norman tower leading to St. James’s Church.
Sufficient is left of the reverend walls to convey some idea of the former vastness of the abbey and its attendant buildings. Of the minster itself little remainssome arches of the west front, now converted into private houses, and the bases of the piers which supported the central tower. The site of St. Edmunds’ Chapelthe part of the building which contained the famous and much-visited shrineis at the east end of the church. Besides these relics of the minster, there still exists the Norman towerbuilt during the time of Abbot Anselm, and formerly known as the principal entrance to the cemetery of St. Edmund, and latterly as the “Churchgate” and bell tower of St. James’s Churchthe abbot’s bridge (Decorated) of three arches; portions of the walls, and the abbey gateway. . . .
First among the abbots of Bury stands the name of Samson, “the wolf who raged among the monks.” Many of the brothers had become entangled with Jewish money-lenders in the twelfth century, and Abbot Samson, while protecting the Jews at the time of the massacre, discharged all the debts of his house, established many new rules, and set a godly and strenuous example to his followers. Later, in 1205, the chief barons met at Bury in opposition to King John, and swore at the second meeting, four years later, in the presence of the king and Archbishop Langton, to stand by their cause till the king should be induced to sign the Great Charter, and to establish those liberties which we still enjoy.