The history of Bury St Edmunds began approximately 2,000 years ago in the aftermath of the Roman conquest of the British Isles. Roman soldiers established an inland outpost called Villa Faustina (town of Faustina, possibly in honour of Rupilia Faustina, the great niece of Roman emperor Trajan). Not surprisingly, Villa Faustina disappeared form the annals of history for the next six centuries.
However, in 633 A.D., for some unknown reason, Saint Sigeberht, the king of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Angles, ordered the construction of a monastery deep in the hinterland of his dominion, and renamed the surrounding area Beodericsworth. In the following decades, Beodericsworth grew in stature and was considered as one of the royal towns of the Saxon kings. But disaster struck two centuries later.
The tribalistic Norsemen (who are technically Vikings) of Scandinavia, for the first time ever, united under a single army. Led by Ragnar Lodbrok, the Vikings waged a campaign of conquest and plunder across Western Europe. However, after years of fighting, West Frankish king, Charles the Bald, began to systematically repel the marauding Vikings from vulnerable coastal settlements. This forced the Vikings to turn their attention to England. Lodbrok sent his three sons to lead a force of several thousand Vikings, called the Great Heathen Army, to England in 865 and waged a 14-year campaign to conquer the four dominant kingdoms which governed the majority of the proto-state.
By 869, the Vikings had harried the King of Angles, Edmund, to Beodericsworth. As written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which was like the Wikipedia of the era, maintain and updated by the clergy), Edmund’s army was defeated by the Vikings. He was captured, and under the orders of two of Lodrok’s sons, Ubba and Ivar the Boneless, Edmund was killed and decapitated after he purportedly refused to renounce his Christian faith.
And then, something miraculous happened. People began to report of miracles after praying at King Edmund’s shrine. His legend grew even larger after Saint Abbon of Fleury, a French Benedictine monk, wrote about his martyrdom and miracles in Passio Sancti Eadmundi (The Passion of Saint Edmund), and venerated him into a saint. Royalties, including kings and queens, from all across Europe made religious pilgrimages to Saint Edmund’s shrine.
It came as no surprise then that shortly after, the settlement was renamed as Bury St Edmunds. Bury is a corruption of the word borough, which itself is a corruption of the German word ‘burgz’, which means walled town or fort.
In 1095, Cnut the Great, the King of England, Denmark and Norway, ordered the rebuilding of the 400-year-old monastery into a massive Benedictine abbey. The Bury St Edmunds Abbey would go on to become one of the most famous and wealthiest abbeys in Europe owing to multiple royal patronages. The monks of the abbey became powerful figures in the region, and wield powerful social and economic influence. So much so, even the rebel barons behind the Magna Carta convened in the Abbey in November 1214 prior to meeting King John seven months later – hence why the town is also known as the Cradle of the Law.
The thriving economy of town received a further boon in 1235 when it was granted a royal charter to hold annual fairs by King Henry III. The charter was modified several times over the next four centuries, culminating with a charter for a market and Easter fair – which is still in force today. Even if the concept of market towns is largely redundant today, Bury St Edmunds still remains as one of the few towns in England which can officially call itself a market town.