View of Norman Tower and St James's church from within Abbey precincts. Picture by courtesy of the Jarman collection held by the Bury St Edmunds Past and Present Society at
Anselm's gate and St James's
Abbot Anselm recognises the customs of the burgesses

Dated to about 1130

Background to Anselm's Charter

Anselm was abbot of St Edmund's abbey from 1120 until 1148, except for a brief period when he was elected as Bishop of London in the late 1130s. He returned to the abbacy after the London election was overturned by the Pope. Under Abbot Anselm a new church of St James was built, and the town ditch would be supplemented by a Town Wall. He would also extend the abbey precinct to a new line emphasised by the building of St James's gateway, now known as the Norman Tower. Along with great artistic endeavours like the Bury Bible and the great bronze doors on the abbey church, Anselm's rule was an expensive one for the townspeople.

The struggle of the burgesses to shake off the iron grip of the Abbot and his officials was a long running theme behind the relationship between town and cope. The prosperity coming from local commerce and industry only made the burgesses more inclined to ask for more self government. Their feelings contrasted with the fact of the abbey's extensive control over economic and administrative affairs within the town of Bury St Edmunds, as well as over West Suffolk. The abbey's conservatism only 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 entrepreneurial ambitions.

This charter of Abbot Anselm is presented as a recognition of existing borough customs, rather than as a concession of new privileges or powers. It was normal for medieval writs and charters to be granted personally rather than corporately. This meant that just as each new king had to renew the charters of his predecessor, so did each new abbot have to confirm (or repudiate) the grants of previous abbots.

The same, or a very similar charter, was probably that for which the townsmen are recorded by Jocelin de Brakelond as purchasing from Abbot Sampson a confirmation in the 1190s.

Introduction to the Charter

The document which follows comes from the website Florilegium urbanum by Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003. It was translated from the original Latin. He has reformatted the document into separate clauses to make for easier reading. The tabular form and sub-headings have been added by David Addy

Bury St Edmunds: A Confirmation of the customs and privileges of the burgesses of St Edmund's Bury.

Granted by Abbot Anselm around 1130

1Burgess's customs acknowledged to go back to before 1066

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.

2Burgess's custom to provide night watches and gate keepers

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.

3Obligation to help with repairs to the Town Ditch

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.

4Burgage plot dues confirmed at a penny a year

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.

5Burgesses exempt from pleas in Hundred Court and County Court

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.

6Burgesses confirmed property rights

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.

7Land may be sold to anyone within St Edmund's lands

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.

8Burgesses allowed to apply distraint on unpaid loans

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.

9Purchaser to also take over burgage dues and taxes

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.

9Witnesses to the Charter

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.


Punctuation is by the translator in most cases.

The headings are my insertions.


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

Glossary of terms:

The four gates :The term 'gate' did not necessarily imply, at the period of Anselm's charter, an elaborate stone structure, although clearly there was some kind of physical barrier.
Northgate and Southgate lay on the original main thoroughfare through the town. The Southgate suburb 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 area 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 area was likewise relatively sparsely settled.
Risby gate 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 area became densely populated, and Risbygate served to link the town with what became a populous suburb.
Knights :Those who held property in the liberty of St. Edmund's by way of a knight's tenure, it being customary for such tenants to contribute to the maintenance of local fortifications.
Sokemen :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.
Responsibility :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 in feudal charters, but normally applied to land of patrimonial inheritance.
Acknowledged :Most likely refers to a formal recognizance of the debt, at time of it being contracted, before the authorities.
In fee and common Socage :Legal term for a Feudal tenure of land involving payment of rent to a superior. Such terms survive today with a freehold house being held in fee simple for example. In the area of a socage, despite it being let or leased out, the lord retained his overlordship.

Go to Charters Homepage Go to Chronicle date 1130 Page created on 7th November, 2010 Go to Home Page