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Brass Rubbings

Lead and Brass

On medieval Bury St Edmunds.


The year 2024 marks the eight-hundredth anniversary of the arrival in England of the Friars Minor, sent personally by Saint Francis of Assisi, and the establishment of England’s first Franciscan friary in Canterbury in 1224. The Franciscans followed the Dominicans, who had already arrived in England in 1221, and both groups of mendicants targeted major urban areas for their revolutionary mission of preaching, pastoral care for the poor, and encouraging learning. From London, the friars naturally looked north to England’s second-largest city at the time, Norwich, and to the university town of Cambridge. Indeed, Cambridge quickly became the headquarters of a Franciscan “custody,” which took in the major towns of East Anglia. One of these was Bury St Edmunds, a burgeoning market town that was one of England’s major pilgrimage destinations alongside Canterbury and Durham. It was a natural target for the friars—full of potential hearers of the Gospel, and close to Cambridge.

There was only one problem. Bury St Edmunds was dominated, and indeed controlled, by a vast Benedictine abbey. Founded by King Canute in the eleventh century, St Edmunds Abbey had established its independence as what today would be known as an “abbey nullius,” that is to say an abbey exempt from diocesan jurisdiction and immediately subject to the Holy See. Indeed, the abbot of St Edmunds claimed “regalian rights” within the town itself, effectively acting as both bishop and king. The abbey needed the town and its burgesses, since it received so many pilgrims, but it also forbade the burgesses from forming any kind of urban government and imposed harsh tariffs and rents on the laity. Bury St Edmunds was a monastic town, a settlement that depended on and was under the thumb of a huge, well-established abbey.

In 1233 the Franciscans attempted to settle in two monastic towns, Reading and Bury St Edmunds, but the monks deployed papal bulls originally issued to protect them against impositions by the local bishop against the friars: no one had the right to build any church, set up any altar, or exercise any ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the town other than the pope himself or his legate. This was tested again in 1238, when the Dominicans and Franciscans joined forces to request an investigation by the papal legate Otho into the possibility of a friary in Bury St Edmunds—but the legate ruled against them.

Nevertheless, the friars remained determined to settle in Bury, and in 1256 they received an invitation from a burgess of the town, Sir Roger de Harbridge, to stay in his house at the town’s North Gate. Accordingly, the friars arrived and set up a temporary altar where they began saying Mass and preaching, but the monks or their servants tore the entire house down during the night. The friars appealed to Pope Alexander IV, but the monks counter-appealed, and in the end it was only by writing to King Henry III that the friars finally got their own way. The king ordered the friars to be given an armed escort of knights to re-enter the town and take possession of a site for building a friary—a memory of which survives to this day in a street called Friars Lane (very close to the town’s present-day Catholic church). For six years, from 1257 until 1263, the friars carried on their building project under periodic harassment from the monks, who remained determined to uphold their privileges and expel the friars.

The election of Pope Urban IV in 1261 gave the monks their chance; knowing the new pope to be less sympathetic to the friars than his predecessor, they wrote to him asking him to order the friars to stop building their friary and tear it down. Urban duly expelled the friars, and the monks razed the friary to the ground. But it was hardly an unqualified victory for the monks. The royal protection that the friars enjoyed made it impossible for the abbot to leave the friars empty-handed, and a compromise was reached in the long-running dispute between the two religious orders. The friars would leave the town of Bury St Edmunds, but they would settle just outside it, on land given by the abbot at Babwell, outside the town’s North Gate. In fact, the enclosure of the friary at Babwell was the largest in area of any in England.

The visitor to modern Bury St Edmunds, passing north out of the town center past the railway station, will arrive at the junction of two roads, heading northwest and northeast respectively; between them is a rather nondescript wall of flint and brick which marks the edge of the Priory Hotel, a collection of modern buildings on the site of the medieval friary. Very little of Babwell Friary survives, apart from a few sections of the precinct wall, the friars’ fishpond, and what might be part of the late medieval gatehouse incorporated into the seventeenth-century Priory House. We know, however, that the friary housed around thirty friars at any given time and that it had a large priory church with a separated bell tower; there was also a chapter house and infirmary, and parts of the enclosure were cultivated as kitchen gardens, with a bridge over the River Lark that formed the eastern boundary of the precinct. This friary was begun in 1265, formally founded by Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, and flourished until its dissolution in December 1538. Technically, the friary lay in the parish of Fornham All Saints, meaning that it was outside the abbot’s jurisdiction.

This clever compromise did not prevent the presence of the friars continuing to cause trouble for Bury’s Benedictine monks, however. In 1289 one of King Edward I’s justices, Thomas de Weyland, sought sanctuary at Babwell when he fell from the king’s favor, and the friary was besieged by one of Edward’s knights until Weyland surrendered. Then, in 1327, a major riot broke out in Bury and the townsfolk rebelled, ransacking the abbey and imprisoning the monks. The friars seized their opportunity and asked the newly constituted rebel council if they could have their Friars Lane site back in order to build a friary inside the town. They were overruled by the clergy of Bury’s two town churches, who were worried the friars would pick up all of the people’s offerings—an indication of just how popular the friars were. The friars, however, were allowed to take part in the Rogationtide procession that year—which was normally controlled by the abbey—and the members of the rebel council later sought sanctuary in the friary. That sanctuary seems to have been respected, and the friars twice received letters of royal protection in spite of their connivance with the rebels.

Babwell’s proximity to Cambridge and its large size—most English friaries were built on tiny urban sites wedged between streets—made it an attractive place of retirement and retreat for Franciscan scholars from Cambridge, and we know the friary played host to eminent theologians as well as astronomers and mathematicians. The community of the friary was diverse at this time, with friars from Germany, France, and even Libya as well as more local personnel—an indication of the international character of the Franciscan order. But some of the friars also seem to have been living a more comfortable existence, with some working as parish priests and others receiving stipends to say Masses. The friary remained a very popular destination for bequests in the wills of Bury burgesses, who often made small or large donations to the friars—bequests to the hated abbey, by contrast, were rare.

When Henry VIII’s commissioners determined to dissolve the friaries in 1538, the last warden of Babwell, Peter Brinkley, was initially defiant and was said to have spoken “seditious words.” But within a short time he had fallen into line, perhaps because he was promised ecclesiastical preferment, and he surrendered the friary in early December. As mendicants, the friars received no pensions; we do not know what happened to them, although we know Warden Brinkley had a succession of parochial appointments and an unhappy marriage. The friary was swiftly stripped of any lead and brass and came into the possession of the Bacon family, who were the hereditary stewards of the Liberty of St Edmund.

The Franciscans’ conflict with the Benedictine monks in Bury St Edmunds was perhaps the bitterest confrontation between the old and new orders in thirteenth-century England, and the friars’ persistence in staying in or close to the town of Bury was remarkable. It seems that giving up and moving elsewhere, as the Dominicans did (they settled in nearby Sudbury) was not an option. The friars, however, secured a favorable compromise that left them as a thorn in the monks’ side and successfully became the only other religious house in the town’s vicinity. Today their role in the history of the town is largely forgotten, while the Benedictine abbey with its massive ruins is remembered—but the history of the Franciscans of Babwell Friary stands as a reminder that the monks of Bury St Edmunds did not always have it their own way.

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Francis Young is a historian and the author of more than twenty books, including The Franciscans in Medieval Bury St Edmunds.