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 Sigeberht 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 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, cordwainers (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 'cannibalised' 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 of 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 onwards 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.