Abbot Sampson & Brother Jocelyn
by Rose Mead 1907

The Monks and Nuns
of
St Edmundsbury

The Benedictine Monks at Bury, Thetford and Sudbury
The great abbey at Bury St Edmunds was a Benedictine foundation from 1020 when Bishop Ailwin, under King Canute, drafted in 20 Black Monks from Horning and Ely to replace the secular priests.

St Georges' Benedictine Priory at Thetford was founded some time after 1020, in the reign of King Canute by Abbot Uvius of Bury St Edmunds to commemorate the fallen in the battles with the Danes. It was to the south of the river. By about 1160 there were only two monks left and Abbot Hugh of Bury St Edmunds decided to hand the site over to Benedictine Nuns from Ling, and withdraw the monks. The Abbey used to supplied them with food and beer from Bury but were often robbed en-route.
The Priory was closed in 1537 and the church is now a barn.

The Sudbury cell was set up in 1115 dedicated to St Bartholomew.

The order was named after St Benedict of Nursia (480 - 543) but although western monasticism was based upon his rules, he did not found the Benedictine Order as such. He lived from 528 at Monte Casino with a small community and drew up his Rule but it was never imposed as a code.

In 597 Augustine came to Canterbury and founded a monastery.

By about 650 English monks were basing their lives on St Benedict's Rule.
In 817 the Council of Aachen made the Rule obligatory.
In around 950 there was a post Viking revival of Benedictine monasteries and new ones were founded.

After 1066 there was a further round of foundations, beginning with the Abbey of St Martin at Battle.

By 1100 there were 130 Benedictine Houses including Bury, Canterbury, Norwich and Peterborough, Ely, Ramsey and St Albans.

The monks of Benedictine houses were great writers, beginning with Bede, Asser of St Davids, Jocelin of Bury and Matthew Paris of St Albans.

Half the nunneries in England were Benedictine, their recruits often being aristocratic or even royal daughters.

The order was known as the Black Monks until about 1400 when the term Benedictine was apparently adopted more widely.

Cluniac Monks at Thetford: St Mary's Priory
Roger Bigod was the sponsor of this colony of monks from Lewes who arrived in 1103. They started on a site south of the river but in 1114 moved to the north side. This was a wealthy house in the 13th century and had many pilgrims. In 1248 a monk murdered the prior and in 1313 a mob stormed the church and killed several monks. They were classed as an alien priory until 1376. In the 15th century the Dukes of Norfolk were buried here, and the priory lasted until 1540. The gatehouse and several walls still remain at the end of Abbeygate and much of it is open to the public.

The Cluniacs were started in Cluny in Burgundy in 910 when the Duke of Aquitaine founded a monastery to live under Benedictine rules. They believed in the use of wealth to glorify God and the church at Cluny was 520 feet long, the largest church of Medieval Europe in the 12th century. The Order remained centralised upon the Abbot of Cluny when it expanded.

The first English house was set up at Lewes in Sussex in 1077 by William de Warrene, and there were 32 houses by the time of the dissolution.

Augustinian Canons at Ixworth, Thetford and Chipley
St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa lived from 354 to 430. He did not found the order based on his ideas. In about 423 he wrote to a congregation of religious women and his followers based their Rule upon the ideas expressed in this letter.

Archbishop Anselm introduced the order into England between 1093 and 1099 and the first house was St Julian and St Botolph's at Colchester.

137 more were founded by 1175 and reached a peak of 218 houses after that date.

Augustinian canons were established at Holy Cross Priory, Thetford in about 1139, on the Suffolk side of the river.

The Ixworth house was founded in 1170. A farmhouse called Chipley Abbey contains the remains of a Priory founded some time before 1235. It only ever housed 3 or 4 canons and in 1468 was annexed to Stoke-by-Clare collegiate church.

They wore black cloaks, black cassocks and white surplices and became known as Black Canons. They were not restricted to monasteries, also serving in churches and founding many hospitals.

They were also Augustinian Canonesses by the 13th century.

The term Augustinian was sometimes abbreviated to Austin.

The Augustinian or Austin Friars at Clare, and St Augustines Friary in Thetford
In the early 13th century there were 15 groups of Austin Hermits in Europe.

In 1256 the mendicant order was officially established by Pope Alexander IV.

The first English house was established at Clare in 1248 to 1249.

The eventual head house was set up in London four years later.

At Oxford the Austin Friars were so regarded for their learning that every Bachelor of Arts had to join in debate once a year before the Austin Friars.

In 1389, John of Gaunt brought in Austin Friars to establish St Augustines' Friary in Thetford. It always seemed to have been a small and poor house, and the site is now occupied by Ford Place. John of Gaunt placed them to the north of the town to avoid competing for alms with the Dominicans in the south. It was dissolved in 1538.

After the dissolution of Clare in 1538 it is amazing to note that in 1953 the ruins and remains were returned to the Austin Friars and the community at Clare is still thriving today.

The Crutched Friars of Welnetham
The Brethren of the Holy Cross had an obscure origin but existed in Italy in the 12th century, as Pope Alexander III granted them a fixed rule of Life and Constitution in 1169.

They had 16 Irish houses in the 13th century and came to England before 1217 as we know that after 1218 they set up a hospital for the poor and sick at Reigate.

Only about eleven friaries were established, and one was set up at Welnetham in around 1274.

Their habit was black or brown with a red cross on the breast, and friars carried a staff surmounted with a cross. Pope Pius II later changed the habit to blue.

The Franciscan or Grey Friars at Babwell (The Friars Minor)
St Francis of Assisi lived from 1182 to 1226 and was an Italian who founded the first major mendicant order of Friars minor. Pope Innocent III gave his verbal sanction to this new form of religious expression in 1209.

St Francis renounced his wealthy background for a life of poverty and prayer and is noted for his love of nature. He is said to have preached to the birds. He was canonised in 1228 and his Rule emphasised poverty over chastity and obedience.

At first the friars owned nothing, living in real poverty and surviving on alms from the faithful.

By 1400 the Order was divided between Observants who held to an absolute rule of poverty and Conventuals who believed that the Order could and should own its own monasteries.

The first English house was established at Canterbury in 1224 and by the Dissolution there were 58 Conventual houses and 6 Observants.

The Babwell Friary on Fornham Road in Bury was founded in 1263 when the Abbot of St Edmundsbury gave them land just outside the Banleuca at the junction with Tollgate Lane. The area of 43 acres was the largest recorded Franciscan House, most of it doubtless under cultivation. This group had tried to establish themselves in 1233 but were not welcomed at first. In 1257 they obtained a Papal Bull in their favour but the monks again had them expelled.

The Dominican or Black Friars at Sudbury and Thetford (The Friars Preachers)
The Sudbury Friary was established in 1248 and is not to be confused with the small cell of Benedictines at nearby St Bartholomew's.

The Dominican house was dedicated to St Saviour and was noted for its theological studies. Only an archway remains in Friars Street.

In 1335 the Earl of Lancaster founded the Dominican Friary of Holy Trinity and St Mary at Thetford. He gave the Friars the old cathedral church on the South side of the River abandoned by the Cluniacs in 1114. Parts of this still remain in the grounds and buildings of Thetford Grammar School. It was dissolved in 1538.

Dominic de Guzman was a Spaniard, living from 1170 to 1221 and was an Augustinian Canon at Osma in Spain. He founded the Dominicans as the second major order of Friars in order to preach to the heretics of Southern France. The Rule was based upon St Augustine's but the emphasis on preaching led to them being called Friars Preachers.

The first English house was set up at Oxford in 1221 and there were 49 English monasteries by the time of the dissolution.

They took degrees in theology in order to preach against heresy and ignorance, but they did not stay in one monastery all the time. They moved from place to place wearing a long black cloak with a black hood.

Prepared for the St Edmundsbury website
by David Addy, August 1999

Books consulted:
English Medieval Monasteries 1066-1539, by Roy Midmer
Yesterdays Town - Bury St Edmunds by Margaret Statham
Bury St Edmunds and the urban crisis - by Robert Gottfried


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