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CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bury St. Edmunds abbey customs defences nightwatch gates burgage tenure debt planned towns topography mesne boroughs shrine pilgrimage

Subject: Recognition by an abbot of the customs of his burgesses
Original source: British Library, Harleian Ms.639, f.5 (17th century copy from Liber Niger, Cambridge University Library, Mm.iv.19, f.117)
Transcription in: J.H. Round, "The First Charter to St. Edmund's Bury, Suffolk," American Historical Review, vol.2 (1897), 689-90.
Original language: Latin
Location: Bury St. Edmunds
Date: ca. 1130s


Anselm, by the grace of God Abbot of St. Edmund's, to all his barons and men, French and English, and all their successors, greetings. This is to notify you that the following are the customs which the burgesses of St. Edmund's have proven before me in my court that they held in the time of King Edward, in the time of King William and his sons William and Henry, and in the time of my predecessors – that is, Abbot Baldwin and other abbots – and which I have granted and confirmed to them with the permission of the entire convent of St. Edmund's.

Accordingly, their custom is to provide annually 8 men for the 4 night-watches to guard the town, and on the feast of St. Edmund [20 November] 16 men for the 4 gates – that is two men during the day and the same number overnight – and similarly during the 12 days of Christmas. They are also to provide 4 gatekeepers annually for the 4 gates. The fifth gate, however, (that is, the east gate) is under direct control of the abbot. But if construction is to take place on the gates, the sacrist is to provide the materials and the burgesses are to work them.

When the ditch surrounding the town needs to be repaired, if the abbey's knights and free sokemen work on it, then the burgesses will work on it just like the knights or sokemen; for that task is not more the responsibility of the burgesses than the knights.

Whoever holds tenements in the town of St. Edmund as burgage land is to pay the reeve each year for each tenement a halfpenny at [each of] the two terms: Whitsun and Martinmas.

Furthermore, they are not obliged to go outside the town of St. Edmund, not to the hundred court or the county court, nor to any plea that is brought before a court, other than to their portmanmoot.

If any burgess holds land in the town of St. Edmund by inheritance, or if he has bought it or acquired it legally in the town or in the marketplace, and he has possession of it for a year and a day without challenge, and is able to prove that by the testimony of burgesses, afterwards he need not answer to anyone who makes a claim against the property.

But if need forces him to it, he may sell that land to whomever he wishes within the fief of St. Edmund's without requiring any permission from the reeve, his [own] wife, his sons, or the rest of his relatives, so long as he has no son or close relative who wishes and is able to pay him the same price as anyone else for it.

If someone lends his money to anyone, whether inside or outside town, and is not able to get it back on the due date, and this [loan] has been acknowledged in the town, he may apply distraint in order to have it. But if he has a pledge for [repayment of] the same and holds on to it for an entire year and a day, and the debtor denies the debt or is unwilling to repay, and this is proven, he may in the presence of reliable witnesses sell the pledge for whatever he can, and from that amount take the money due him. But if it is more [than he is owed], he shall hand over [the balance] to the debtor. If on the other hand he is unable to obtain all his money from the sale, he may again apply distraint for the shortfall.

If someone acquires land in the town that is customarily held by burgage, regardless of who he may be, he is to make the customary payments due by tradition from that land.

These are the witnesses: Prior Talbot, Sired, Ednoth, Ording, Gorelm, Hervey the sacrist, Adam the steward, Wulward the clerk, Gilbert son of Fulcer, William son of Ailbold, Ralph de Lodnes, Gilbert de Lodnes, Richard de Lodnes, Roger de Gersing, Ralph de Bukeham, Hugh de Kersing, Robert de Haltsted, Ailbric de Capeles, Ailmer de Hwatefelde, Leomer de Berningeham, Berard his nephew, Brian, Osward, William son of Peter, Romald Leo, Ralph the constable, Osbern the butler, Geoffrey de Meleford, John de Valle, Robert Malet.


Ca.630 a monastery was founded by the East Anglian king Sigeberht at a small settlement called Bedricsworth, which developed into a royal vill; Sigeberht himself retired into the monastery. The fate of that monastery in the face of the Danish invasion is uncertain, but about half a century after the torture and murder of King Edmund, killed (870) by Danish captors who had defeated his forces, the king's body was moved to the Bedricsworth and a church founded to house the shrine. He was already considered a martyr and a saint, and the presence of his shrine added something to the existing importance of Bedricsworth in East Anglia. In 945 another King Edmund granted the chapel containing the shrine control over the town and its suburbs, so that revenues from the same could support the shrine, and in the years that followed the foundation is seen acquiring substantial landholdings by donation or bequest. The presence of a mint in the town by the late tenth century is further evidence of how it was prospering. It also served as the administrative centre for West Suffolk, comprising eight and a half hundreds (the town being one and a half of those), whose populations convened at a folkmoot on a hill called Thinghoe, just north of the town.

The Anglo-Saxon town was probably gathered around a north-south route (Northgate/Southgate) which ran past Thinghoe, and focused on a crossroads at the junction with Eastgate, the section of which at the junction was later known as Le Mustowe Strete, suggesting the location there of the meeting-place of the town moot, possibly in a cemetery of the church housing St. Edmund's tomb. This area was offered some protection on three sides by the rivers Linnet and Lark. The unprotected western side much later was protected by a wall, linking Northgate and Westgate, probably preceded by a ditch-rampart fortification; Southgate, as the likely focus of the pre-abbey settlement, may also have had such fortifications supplementing the protection from the water-barriers.

Around 1020 the shrine, serviced by a community of secular clerics, was superseded by a new monastic foundation of Benedictines, transferred from Ely and St. Benet's of Holme, possibly an initiative of Cnut to gain legitimacy in the eyes of his newly-conquered subjects. The new abbey took over control of the town and suburbs, an area which came to be known as the banleuca. In 1044 Edward the Confessor gave the abbot even wider authority, over eight and a half hundreds and over the manor of Mildenhall; this area became known as the liberty of St. Edmund's. It had previously been under the lordship of his mother, Emma, disgraced the previous year for treason, and now Edward had to find a new lord without upsetting the balance of power in East Anglia; he settled for the abbey (whose abbot he expected to be able to nominate), even though this meant placing extensive jurisdiction and its revenues outside direct royal control. He later (1065) transferred jurisdiction of the royal mint to the abbey; while another grant of the Confessor, of date unknown, gave the abbey permission to tax its men when the king taxed his. The name Bedricsworth was now giving way to "St. Edmund's borough". The needs of the abbey generated increasing employment for the town's labourers, craftsmen and administrators (Domesday mentioning 13 reeves living in the town who were responsible for managing abbey lands), and business for its traders.

That St. Edmund was virtually a national saint ensured that the king continued to favour the abbey and ensure its interests were protected. The wealth and power accumulated by the abbey, in part through further gifts of land, as well as from visitation by pilgrims to St. Edmund's shrine, in turn spurred the economic development of the town, which was a market centre for the region needs and a source of goods and services to the abbey. Just before the Conquest, the newly-appointed Abbot Baldwin initiated a major programme to rebuild the abbey and also planned an expansion of the town, 342 new houses being built over the next two decades; as a Frenchman he was able to weather the political changes at the Conquest, and import fellow countrymen as new settlers. These projects were continued by his predecessors into the next century. It may have been at this time that the abbey precinct expanded across Southgate to disconnect it from Northgate; the purpose of the new sector of the town may have been in part to relocate those residents displaced by the abbey expansion, but it was doubtless also to attract new settlers.

This building programme provided rents and service obligations to the abbey. The Norman grid of a planned town is evident in the street pattern of central Bury St. Edmunds. The new town was equipped with its own marketplace, likewise a source of income to the abbey through ground rents and tolls; this marketplace was, in the thirteenth century, acquiring pre-eminence over the marketplace of the older part of town, on the south side of the abbey. The section of town south of the abbey likely represents the focus of habitation for the pre-Conquest residents.

The town may have had borough status before the Conquest, although the Domesday entry does not specify that nor does it refer to the inhabitants as burgesses. A grant of William Rufus spoke of the abbot's rights infra burgum et extra indicating the intra-mural area had some distinction in status. A charter of Henry I (ca.1102) confirmed to the abbey and the burgesses all liberties they had possessed in the first half of the eleventh century. Whether this, or some initiative originating from the abbey, was the causative factor that made the town free, as Jocelin de Brakelond referred to it in his chronicle, is hard to say; but evidently the townspeople within the walls had rid themselves of some manorial services, via commutation, before the period of which Jocelin writes, and were differentiated from the suburban residents in such regards. The prosperity coming from local commerce and industry, contrasted with the fact of the abbey's extensive control over economic and administrative affairs, stimulated the townspeople's inclinations to free themselves from what they viewed as the oppressive elements of the abbey's lordship, draining money out of the community while obstructing entreneurial ambitions.

The charter of Abbot Anselm – essentially just a recognition of borough customs, rather than the concession of new privileges or powers – was probably that for which the townsmen are recorded by Jocelin de Brakelond as purchasing from Abbot Sampson a confirmation in the 1190s. It is worth comparing these customs with those of the Newcastle burgesses, from a similar period.



I have reformatted the document into separate clauses to make for easier reading.

Anselm was abbot 1121-48, except for a brief period when he was elected as Bishop of London in the late 1130s, but returned to the abbacy after the election was overturned by the Pope.

"Abbot Baldwin"
Baldwin became abbot in 1065; it is quite plausible that, as part of his programme for expanding the town, he would have been concerned with defining the special privileges of the burgesses.

By the late 13th century we have clear evidence of the town being divided into five wards, each being an area in the vicinity of and associated with one of the five entrances (gate not necessarily implying, at the period of Anselm's charter, a elaborate stone structure, although clearly there was some kind of physical barrier). Northgate and Southgate lay on the original main thoroughfare and may have had wards from an early period; Southgate was densely settled and the several watercourses there encouraged the presence of industry (e.g. fulling). Eastgate was a small ward under the direct adminstration of the abbot (or rather, the abbey sacrist), its gate the closest (adjacent) to the abbey precinct and perhaps for this reason controlled directly by the abbey – although the fact that it lay on the Yarmouth-London route may have been another incentive. Westgate ward was relatively sparsely populated, despite incorporating part of the planned town developed soon after the Conquest; the importance of the west gate was perhaps more that through it lay the road to London. Northgate ward was likewise relatively sparsely settled. Risbygate ward – the name suggesting this entrance was not of early importance – may not have been in existence prior to the foundation of the new town and its marketplace; not surprisingly, however, the ward became densely populated, and Risbygate served to link the town with what became a populous suburb.

Those who held property in the liberty of St. Edmund's by knight's tenure, it being customary for such tenants to contribute to the maintenance of local fortifications.

Those who held land by socage tenure, a jurisdictional bond between lord and man based on services provided in return for land, as opposed to personal homage (commendatio). In this period the sokemen class was particularly in evidence in East Anglia.

The gist of this clause, a little confusing at first glance, is that the burgesses were only prepared to undertake maintenance of the defensive ditch if the other abbey tenants contributed too.

"permission from the reeve"
The reason for this seems to have been to ensure that any feudal services associated with the property were clearly conveyed to the new tenant.

"son or close relative"
This right of pre-emption by kin was not uncommon (e.g. see the Nottingham charter), but normally applied to land of patrimonial inheritance.

Most likely refers to a formal recognizance of the debt, at time of it being contracted, before the authorities.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 15, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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