10th May 2021

The Confessor’s Gift and Abbott Baldwin

By Martyn Taylor

Edward the Confessor, the son of Ethelred the ‘Unready’ and Emma of Normandy would see his mother marry Cnut , King of Denmark and Norway after the death of Ethelred. On the death of Cnut, Harold 1st aka ‘Harefoot’ Cnut’s son with Elgiva his first wife took the throne in 1035, much to the chagrin of Emma. She wanted to put on the throne, Harthacanute her son with Cnut, complicated isn’t it? Emma returned from exile in Flanders on the sudden, unexpected death of Harold, realising her ambitions by putting Harthacanute on the throne.

All the while these intrigues were happening Edward was in Normandy, technically by the laws of primogeniture, whereby the eldest son inherits he should have been king. Less than seven years and two kings later his dream of restoring the Royal House of  Wessex were finally fulfilled when Harthacanute died suddenly. After he ascended the throne in 1042, Edward in spiteful revenge against his mother gave all her lands away. The recipient of the new king’s generosity was none other than the Abbey of St Edmundsbury. They received the eight and a half hundreds of what was to become the Liberty of St Edmund, West Suffolk.

Arms of Edward the Confessor

A Hundred consisted of a hundred hides, an individual hide a unit of land capable of supporting one peasant family. How the Abbey received the rich Manor of Mildenhall comes from a story whereby the pious barefooted Edward (heraldic device shown) on a pilgrimage for the last mile to Edmund’s shrine saw monks eating coarse barley bread. When told this was all the Abbey could afford, he said “ask what you want” the answer, “The Manor of Mildenhall” which was Queen Emma’s personal property. The Abbey was now even more powerful and wealthy and would embark on a building programme which would last over 130 years.

Edward the Confessor died in January 1066. The resulting scramble for the English throne saw William, Duke of Normandy alias the Conqueror seize it after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a date most school children should know.

By now the town with its own mint was called  Seynt Eadmundes Byrig (St Edmundsbury) it did not need a castle to subdue its inhabitants as Baldwin, a monk of St Denys in France had been elected abbot a year earlier.

Baldwin began building the Abbey Church in 1081 starting at the east end as was common practice. By the time of the compilation of Domesday in 1086 an astonishing 342 houses had been built on land that was previously under the plough, proper urban expansion. This may well be a result of the required workforce for the construction of the Abbey Church. It has been commented on before, that the ancient medieval grid of Bury St Edmunds by Baldwin makes it the earliest purposely laid-out Norman town in the country.

Layout of the town under Abbott Baldwin

Who the mason responsible for the design of the Abbey Church was another matter? What we do know that this would become the largest Romaneqsue church in the whole of northern Europe. The choice of building materials saw oolitic limestone quarried at Barnack on the Northamptonshire border brought down on barges via waterways and the undrained fens. The ashlar limestone blocks had a flint and lime mortar slurry core, these necessary ingredients directly available from under the very earth of the town. By 1095, the presbytery was sufficiently progressed enough to receive Edmunds body in a splendid ceremony conducted by Bishop Walkelin  of Winchester. Baldwin’s abbacy lasted two further years, eventually to be succeeded by Abbot Anselm after a few hic-cups.

For details of the events to celebrate the Abbey’s 1000th anniversary visit www.abbeyofstedmund1000.co.uk which will be updated throughout the year!

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